Chirac allies in spotlight at Paris ‘bribes’ trial
PARIS, March 21 (AFP) - Senior allies of President Jacques Chirac - including four former ministers - were among nearly 50 people who appeared in court in Paris on Monday at the start of one of France's biggest ever political corruption trials.
A total of 47 defendants – including politicians, party officials, and representatives of some of France’s biggest building companies – are accused of fixing public works contracts in the Paris region in order to obtain illegal party funding.
One of several financial scandals to come to light from Chirac’s long tenure to 1995 as mayor of Paris, the affair centres on kickbacks worth more than EUR 70 million (USD 93 million) allegedly paid by the building firms in order to secure bids to renovate secondary schools around the capital.
Under a secret arrangement that lasted from 1989 to 1997, companies funnelled back two percent of the money paid by the regional Ile-de-France council, with 1.2 percent going to Chirac’s Rally for the Republic (RPR) and its ally the Republican party (PR), and 0.8 percent going to the Socialists (PS), according to the prosecution.
Among the defendants is Michel Roussin, 65, who for many years served as Chirac’s cabinet director at Paris town hall and was cooperation minister in the conservative government of Edouard Balladur from 1993 to 1995.
Also appearing is Michel Giraud, 75, a former president of the Ile-de-France regional council and labour minister; Gerard Longuet, 59, former PR president and industry minister; and Guy Drut, 54, who was sports minister from 1995 to 1997 and is now on the committee for the Paris 2012 Olympic bid.
The other defendants include the former treasurers from the three parties as well as businessmen accused of fixing the building market in defiance of competition laws.
The investigation, which began in 1997 after a tip-off, came close to drawing in Chirac himself four years later, when magistrates began looking into large sums of cash which were paid for his personal travel expenses while he was mayor of Paris.
Chirac refused to appear before the judges, and his office said the money – the franc equivalent of some EUR 300,000 – came from bonuses that he earned as prime minister in the 1980s. The case led to a landmark ruling from the high court of appeal that serving presidents are immune from judicial proceedings.
The trial, which is set to last till July, follows last year’s conviction of another senior Chirac aide – former prime minister Alain Juppe – for paying RPR staff with municipal funds. An investigation is also underway into the alleged rigging of the Paris public housing market during the early 1990s.
It falls at a bad time for Chirac’s government, which is suffering at the polls thanks to a faltering economy, 10 percent unemployment and last month’s scandal over the official residence of then finance minister Herve Gaymard – a close ally of the president who was forced to resign.
Government insiders fear that a reminder of the widespread illegality that prevailed in French politics will increase the public’s disillusionment with its leaders, just as Chirac is trying to rally support for a “yes” vote in the referendum on the European constitution in May.
Two polls in recent days have showed a majority planning to vote “no”.
All France’s political parties have been found guilty of illegal funding scams from the 1980s and early 1990s, but since then public financing has been introduced and the succession of scandals has dried up. It is because of the country’s extremely slow justice system that the cases are now coming to court.
In the “secondary schools affair,” it is also alleged that several politicians benefited personally from the kickbacks. Some of the accused face a maximum term of 10 years in jail.
Subject: French News