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Juppe guilty of Paris scambut appeal blocks sentence

PARIS, Jan 30 (AFP) – In a verdict with major implications for France’s governing centre-right, one of President Jacques Chirac’s top political allies – former prime minister Alain Juppe – was found guilty Friday of illegal party funding and barred from public office.

Juppe, who at 58 now heads the pro-Chirac Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, was given a 18-month suspended jail term by the court in the Paris suburb of Nanterre – a sentence which under electoral rules means an an automatic disqualification from public office for at least five years.

 The former prime minister had threatened to leave politics if disqualified from office, ruling himself out of contention to succeed Chirac after 2007 presidential elections and setting off a potentially bitter period of in-fighting within the UMP.

However, he immediately launched an appeal, which meant the entire sentence was put on hold. Juppe’s political future thus was likely to remain in limbo until the appeal hearing, which could be at least a year away.

Juppe did not react as the verdict was read. His lawyer, Francis Szpiner, called the ruling “open to criticism and unjust”.

The former prime minister was convicted of “taking illegal benefits” in the biggest case yet to come to court centring on allegations of financial irregularities during Chirac’s 18-year tenure to 1995 as mayor of Paris.

Then head of Chirac’s Rally for the Republic (RPR) party – the UMP’s precursor – as well as financial director at Paris city hall, Juppe was found to have arranged for the payment of RPR staffers with municipal funds between 1998 and 1995.

During last September’s trial he denied the accusations, saying he only became aware of the system in 1993 and then put a stop to it. But one of his former colleagues told the court that “everyone knew” about the illegal payments.

Twenty-six other people faced charges in the trial, including two former RPR treasurers and businessmen accused of paying RPR salaries in order to get access to municipal contracts. Most were convicted and given suspended prison terms.

Juppe served as Chirac’s first prime minister from 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.

Commentators said that Juppe alone has been able to control the rival Gaullist, pro-European and liberal factions of the UMP, and that he is also seen by Chirac as the best way of thwarting the presidential ambitions of the popular interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

The charges in Juppe’s trial dated from a time when all French poliical parties were resorting to underhand methods to finance themselves. Chirac himself has avoided judicial investigations into how much he knew of the payment scam by claiming presidential immunity.


                                Subject: France news