Former French President Jacques Chirac won't have to attend his long-awaited corruption trial, a judge ruled Monday, after Chirac's lawyers said the 78-year-old is suffering from severe memory lapses.
Judge Dominique Pauthe said he took into account a written appeal and four-page medical report sent Friday by Chirac's defense team, and decided that the trial will be allowed to go ahead without the ex-president in court.
"In light of the items received in support of this letter, the personal appearance will not be ordered," Pauthe said after deliberating for less than an hour. "Jacques Chirac will thus be judged in his absence."
France's first trial involving a former head of state since World War II involves the alleged creation of more than two-dozen fake City Hall jobs used to fund Chirac's conservative party while he was mayor of Paris from 1977 to 1995.
Chirac, who has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, enjoyed immunity from prosecution during his subsequent 12 years as head of state.
The trial was suspended in March shortly after it began to allow consideration of an appeal by one of his co-defendants. On trial Monday with Chirac were two of his former chiefs of staff at City Hall and seven others said to have benefited improperly from the graft.
Ahead of France's presidential election 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.
Judge Pauthe on Monday read from the defense letter, which said Chirac wanted to be heard because his testimony would be "useful for our democracy" and show that "all French people are equal under the law."
Chirac's legal team issued a statement Saturday arguing that he no longer has the full capacity to participate in court proceedings, and asking that he be allowed to skip them.
The letter, Pauthe said, came accompanied by four pages of medical records, including a Chirac brain scan in April and a medical report drawn up in July.
"It's my belief that he isn't in any condition to remember events that date back 20 years," Chirac defense lawyer Jean Veil told the court.
Veil said Chirac suffers from "severe memory lapses" linked to an "irreversible condition." He said Chirac's condition was not a sickness but a "symptom" possibly linked to his 2005 stroke or "other origins."
Jerome Karsenti, a lawyer for the anti-corruption group Anticor, urged an independent medical exam to make sure Chirac's alleged medical trouble is not just an "umpteenth delay" and an attempt at "running away."
Chirac's wife, Bernadette, denied rumors earlier this year that he had Alzheimer's disease, but she acknowledged he was experiencing problems that were either linked to a 2005 stroke or his age.
Georges Kiejman, another Chirac lawyer, gave some of the most intimate details yet of Chirac's mental and physical condition, but declined to state the precise medical diagnosis.
"He can still have charming conversations like he's always had. He can speak in general terms and discuss broad issues _ often interesting ones," he said. "But he cannot concentrate on specific points, which are at the heart of this investigation."
The case is among many scandals to hound Chirac over his years as mayor _ including claims that he and his family improperly ate some euro2.1 million worth of food from 1987 to 1995 at the city's expense. Those cases were rejected either for lack of evidence or because they had surpassed the statute of limitations.
A prison term for Chirac, who famously rallied against George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, is seen as very unlikely. But on paper, if convicted, Chirac could be jailed for up to 10 years and fined euro150,000 ($215,000).
Many critics have decried the trappings of presidential immunity in France.
"This is without a doubt a two-track justice system," Eva Joly, leader of the Green Party and a former high-profile judge, said Monday on France-Info radio. "Having to wait a decade for a verdict isn't right."
Chirac is the first of a former French head of state on trial 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.
While Chirac has retired from day-to-day politics, he remains a huge presence on the political landscape. The party of Nicolas Sarkozy, Chirac's successor as president, has its roots in the political machine that Chirac built.
The popular, avuncular former president made headlines in June after appearing in public with Socialist presidential hopeful Francois Hollande, and saying that he would vote for him _ which resonated as a dig against Sarkozy. Chirac's office later said it was a joke.
Pierre-Antoine Souchard contributed to this report.