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Corruption charge rocks French ‘grandfather’ Chirac

Paris — Jacques Chirac’s looming corruption trial deals a body blow to the two-time president, an ugly intrusion into the veteran leader’s golden retirement from the political front line.

After 12 years as French head of state, two terms as prime minister and 18 years as mayor of Paris, the 76-year-old Gaullist bowed out in 2007 following a half-century at the top of his game.

Graft allegations from his time as Paris mayor dogged Chirac’s later years in office, when he was openly attacked as a "crook", and he handed power to Nicolas Sarkozy under a cloud of suspicion.

Since then, the veteran statesman has settled into genteel semi-retirement as head of a foundation fighting global warming and poverty and the murkier aspects of his past have faded into soft focus.

This month, he bounced back as French voters’ favourite politician, with a poll giving him an approval rating of 76 percent.

For all his policy flip-flops on everything from the economy to Europe or the environment, many now choose to remember him as the leader who stood up to Washington over the Iraq war.

The French also seem nostalgic for his warm manner and appetite for good food and beer, and his traditional style of statesmanship, which contrasts with the brash energy of his successor.

Newspapers run occasional light stories about Chirac’s health or the tribulations of his depressed Maltese Bichon dog Sumo — his image a far cry from that of the political "bulldozer" of his ambitious youth.

"He has become a kind of grandfather figure for us all," former culture minister Christine Albanel said recently of the former president, who is due to publish volume one of his memoirs next week.

Until now Chirac had managed to keep the courts at arms length despite losing the immunity from prosecution that shielded him as head of state.

But now the past has come back to haunt him.

Chirac is to be tried on charges of using the city pay roll to pay salaries to aides who were in reality working for his right-wing political party during his long tenure as mayor of Paris from 1977 to 1995.

Investigating magistrates opened an inquiry into Chirac’s running of city hall in 1999 after receiving a complaint alleging widespread abuses, including graft, illegal party financing and destruction of evidence.

The prospect of Chirac in the dock may come as little surprise to the French public.

A generation of French voters grew up on a drip feed of media revelations about the alleged excesses of Chirac and his wife while he wielded power from his base in city hall.

Corruption claims against Chirac have long been a running joke on the country’s top satirical television show, which at one period lampooned him as a cape-wearing anti-hero: "SuperLiar".

One sketch cast Chirac and his wife Bernadette as a pair of geriatric gangsta rappers, wallowing in banknotes and thumbing their noses at the law while they lived the high life at taxpayers’ expense.

And yet Friday’s news split commentators, with some shaking their heads at the "persecution" of a frail old man, while others hailed a proud day for French justice.

"It seems like an unhealthy kind of persecution to me. Jacques Chirac doesn’t deserve this," said ruling party lawmaker Jean-Pierre Grand.

"Nobody or next to nobody, in all humanity, wants Jacques Chirac to be treated pitilessly," wrote the newspaper Liberation. "But the courts must not and cannot wipe clean the slate of the Chirac years.

"Not out of revenge, but simple fairness."