PARIS, Jan 29 (AFP) – One of French President Jacques Chirac’s closest allies – former prime minister Alain Juppe – will learn Friday if he has been convicted in a political corruption trial, a verdict which could have major repercussions for the ruling centre-right.
Juppe, who at 58 now heads the pro-Chirac Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, is accused of “taking illegal benefits” in the biggest case yet to come to court centring on allegations of financial irregularities during the president’s 18-year tenure as mayor of Paris.
If found guilty he faces a possible suspended prison term, but more importantly a disqualification from holding elected office – scuppering his chances of taking over from Chirac after 2007 presidential elections and setting off potentially bitter in-fighting inside the UMP.
Members of the UMP were pessimistic about Juppe’s chances of acquittal, but noted that the judge could choose not to apply the disqualification penalty.
At October’s trial the state prosecutor requested an eight-month suspended prison term, but no period of ineligibility from office.
If Juppe launched an appeal against conviction, the penalty would similarly be put on hold, though commentators said in that case he would remain in political limbo and unable to push his presidential ambitions.
Earlier his month Juppe, who is also mayor of the southwestern city of Bordeaux and a member of the National Assembly, said that if declared ineligible he would leave politics. “I will do something else. When you are in politics, you have to be elected. Otherwise it makes no sense,” he said.
Juppe was one of 27 people who stood trial in the western Paris suburb of Nanterre on charges of organising the illegal payment of staff salaries at Chirac’s Rally for the Republic (RPR) – the UMP’s precursor – while Chirac was Paris mayor during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The former prime minister denied the accusation that he condoned the payment of RPR officials with municipal funds while he was in charge of finances at the Hotel de Ville – or city hall – telling the court he only became aware of the system in 1993 and then put a stop to it.
However a former colleague Yves Cabana told the court that “everybody knew” about the illegal payments, and the judge expressed surprise that Juppe could have been unaware that his own secretary was receiving her salary from a private company.
Juppe served as Chirac’s first prime minister after the presidential election of 1995 but his attempts at social reform led to strikes and he lost office to the Socialist Lionel Jospin in the 1997 election. He was then instrumental in the formation of the UMP and the centre-right’s successful fight back in 2002.
Described once by Chirac as “the best from among us,” he has a close relationship with the president who is widely presumed to want him as his successor. However critics say he is a cold intellectual who lacks the charisma necessary to carry him to the top.
His disqualification would leave the field open to the man widely seen as his rival to replace Chirac – Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy – who has made no secret of his desire for the presidency. However some UMP insiders fear this would lead to a destabilising backlash against Sarkozy inside the party.
Deeply implicated in the RPR funding scandal affair as a result of a document bearing his signature, Chirac is himself immune from prosecution as a result of his presidential status, but the trial once again raised questions over how much he knew about the scam.
Subject: France news