Ex-French president Chirac on trial for corruption

AP News
Posted: Mar 07, 2011 5:08 PM
Ex-French president Chirac on trial for corruption

Time may again be on Jacques Chirac's side.

The French former president gained a one-day reprieve _ and possibly much more _ after a Paris court said it needs time to rule whether a historic corruption trial that started Monday with him as the star defendant adheres to France's constitution and can go forward.

The trial of Chirac is the first of a former French head of state since the World War II era, when Marshal Philippe Petain, the leader of France's Nazi collaborationist regime, was convicted of treason and shipped into exile.

And with France's presidential election on the way next year, the trial is shaping up as a glimpse of the unseemly underworld of kickbacks, corruption and embezzlement that has long roiled the French political system.

The trial centers on Chirac's time as Paris mayor between 1977 and 1995 _ before he was elected president _ and claims that he and his allies misused city funds. He has repeatedly denied the allegations.

Chirac was not on hand for the trial start Monday, which was largely procedural. But a lawyer for one of his nine co-defendants argued that a key complaint in the case was made too long ago to merit a trial today.

Presiding Judge Dominique Pauthe heard arguments by the defense attorneys _ backed by the Paris prosecutor _ about whether combining two cases at the root of the case meets a crucial constitutional test.

The trial centers on an alleged 28 jobs paid for by Chirac's City Hall from 1992 to 1995, but for work that instead benefited his RPR political party and its allies. It has been brought by two investigating magistrates in Paris and suburban Nanterre, whose two cases have been fused into one.

Jean-Yves Le Borgne, lawyer for former Chirac chief-of-staff Remy Chardon, argued that the statute of limitations had run out on the Paris case _ and that the one in Nanterre was joined to it just to get around that fact.

After a 2-1/2-hour hearing, Pauthe said his panel will rule by Tuesday whether Le Borgne's call for the Court of Cassation, France's highest court, to get involved was warranted _ a move that could delay the trial for weeks.

The Court of Cassation, if summoned, would have the option of sending the motion to the Constitutional Council, which judges the constitutionality of French laws.

Interestingly, Chirac, because he is a former president, is a member of that council, and former National Assembly president Jean-Louis Debre, the brother of one of the other trial defendants, Francois Debre, heads it.

A referral to the Court of Cassation would mean a temporary reprieve for Chirac that could last for days, weeks or even a year.

Chirac, who had been planning on coming to court for Tuesday's proceedings, has now put off his appearance for at least one day, according to his spokeswoman, Benedicte Brissart.

She emphasized that Chirac was not behind the legal effort brought by Le Borgne's constitutionality question "either directly or indirectly."

Paris Prosecutor Jean-Claude Marin has already argued that the cases brought by the investigating magistrates against Chirac aren't strong enough, and has called for them to be thrown out.

There were a few courtroom shenanigans. On orders from the judge, gendarmes escorted out two advocates for civil parties _ hauling one away by his limbs _ for being too long-winded or off-mark with their arguments to the bench in the courtroom with its gilded ceiling and ornately carved wood.

Investigating magistrates for years have sought to have Chirac tried over these and several other scandals during his time as mayor. Under presidential immunity, he avoided them while head of state from 1995 to 2007.

The proceedings at the Paris central courthouse, on the Ile de la Cite island in the Seine River, take place in the same room where Marie Antoinette and others were tried and convicted during the French Revolution.

A prison term against Chirac, who famously rallied against George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, is seen as very unlikely. But in principle, if convicted, Chirac could be jailed for up to 10 years and fined euro150,000 ($210,000).

His health has been in question. In January, Chirac told a French TV station he was doing "fine" and denied he was too feeble to stand trial, and his wife denied a report saying he might have Alzheimer's disease as "a lie."

Anticor, an anti-corruption advocacy group that is a civil party to the case, said President Nicolas Sarkozy's party _ built upon the RPR's remains _ doesn't want any dirty political laundry to come out in the proceedings.

"They don't want a former president to be on trial," Anticor lawyer Jerome Karsenti. "They know very well the political stakes that are involved."


Pierre-Antoine Souchard contributed to this report.

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