French court weighs postponing Chirac graft trial

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A court decides Tuesday whether to press on with the corruption trial of Jacques Chirac, the first former French president ever to go before a judge, after a last-minute bid to postpone it.

The trial is set to examine whether Chirac, 78, embezzled public funds while he was mayor of Paris in the 1990s to pay people working for his party ahead of a successful election bid.

But a lawyer for one of Chirac's co-defendants challenged some of the charges in the case on constitutional grounds, which could delay the trial by several months.

Presiding judge Dominique Pauthe said he would rule on this request in a second hearing at 1:30 pm (1230 GMT) on Tuesday.

Chirac, who was Paris mayor from 1977 to 1995, had immunity from prosecution as president from 1995 to 2007, but the case, which has already seen current Foreign Minister Alain Juppe convicted, has finally caught up with him.

Chirac, one of France's most popular political figures best known abroad for opposing the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, has denied knowledge of corrupt payments. His lawyers accuse magistrates of harbouring a political agenda.

He has been linked to a series of corruption scandals but never convicted. If found guilty this time, he faces up to 10 years in jail and a fine of 150,000 euros ($210,000) on charges including embezzlement and breach of trust.

He did not attend the first day of the trial.

The hearings are the result of the merging of two separate cases -- one begun by magistrates in the Paris suburb of Nanterre in 1995, and another in the capital itself dating to 1998.

The case involves seven alleged ghost jobs for which Chirac is charged with conflict of interest and 21 other jobs for which he is accused of embezzlement and abuse of trust.

Nine other people are on trial alongside Chirac, accused either of having ghost jobs or benefiting from those of town hall employees.

Chirac denies that the people employed in the jobs worked on preparing for the 1995 presidential election, which he went on to win, insisting they were all legitimate posts in the service of Paris.

Jean-Yves Le Borgne, a lawyer for Chirac's former chief of staff, asked the judge to refer to France's constitutional court on whether some of the charges in the Paris case were admissible since they date back to the early 1990s.

State prosecutors threw their weight behind Borgne's move. They had already called for the case to be dismissed, raising the likelihood that Chirac will avoid conviction.

Paris city hall last year dropped its civil charges against Chirac in return for a payment of more than 2.2 million euros, from him and the right-wing UMP party.

Chirac paid more than half a million euros of this from his own pocket but did not acknowledge any wrongdoing.

Anti-corruption campaigners are still bringing separate civil charges.

© 2011 AFP

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