Chirac's graft trial heads for likely dismissal

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 21, 2011 2:16 PM
Chirac's graft trial heads for likely dismissal

By Thierry Lévêque and Alexandria Sage

PARIS (Reuters) - The trial of former French president Jacques Chirac for misuse of public funds is heading for likely dismissal, with even the prosecution calling for the 78-year-old to be discharged, in a case which has provoked a row about judicial independence.

Chirac, a conservative who led France from 1995 to 2007, is accused of using public money to create 28 phantom jobs for political party cronies at Paris Town Hall between 1992 and 1995 during his nearly two decades as mayor.

Prosecutors, accused of being controlled by the executive arm of government, have raised smiles in the courtroom as they explained how the employees, who often had no offices, telephones or paper trails, nevertheless were legitimate.

Under the French system, a judge can call for a trial even over the objections of prosecutors, who owe their jobs to the executive branch and are subject to its will.

Chirac has not attended the trial that began in early September and ends on Friday after being judged too forgetful to answer questions. After a decade of legal argument, both sides now argue that he did not intend to commit any crime.

In court earlier this week, prosecutors gave a spirited two-and-a-half-hour defense of Chirac and nine co-defendants, repeating a request for dismissal first made in 2009 by the head prosecutor for Paris, who was appointed by Chirac.

"The elements aren't there to define intention, which is material for a legal infraction, that's why I am calling for the discharge of the 10 defendants," prosecutor Michel Maes told the court.

On Wednesday, a judges' union said prosecutors were "entirely in the hands of the executive power" and called for a reform of the system.

Of the 28 Town Hall jobs created, only one was illegal, prosecutors said on Tuesday, adding that workers based hours away from Paris in the southern French Chirac stronghold of Correze were "telecommuters."

One woman recruited at a party and hired by Chirac to take notes -- none of which was ever found -- had nevertheless submitted to police a list of books she had read, they said.

Lawyers for Chirac, whose presidential immunity expired in 2007 when he left office, are also expected to argue for the case's dismissal on Friday, after which the court will begin deliberations.

GRAFT CLAIMS HANG OVER POLITICS

Chirac's case marked the first time since World War Two that a former French head of state has been tried in court on criminal charges.

The widely-expected dismissal of the case is unlikely to arouse public anger due to sympathy for a man whose health is failing in old age, according to his wife and doctors. Magazines ran photographs during the summer of beaming holidaymakers posing with the frail former president.

While the Chirac case is fading into history, corruption allegations continue to dog French politicians. Last week, Chirac and his one-time prime minister Dominique de Villepin denied accusations by a former aide that they took $20 million in cash donations from African heads of state.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was a minister under Chirac, has also been accused of excessively cozy ties with the super-rich. He has denied allegations published in the daily Liberation that he was handed cash by L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt for his 2007 election campaign.

French anti-corruption group Anticor argued in the Chirac trial that the alleged phantom jobs were just a small example of a system of corruption involving hundreds of beneficiaries intended to boost Chirac's political power as mayor.

Anticor cited the example of a wife of an elected party official who was paid to provide "cultural advice" of which no trace remains and who never set foot in the town hall.

"It's really sad for France ... it demonstrates the sickness of French justice," Anticor attorney Jerome Karsenti told reporters this week after the dismissal request by prosecutors.

In an article on Wednesday, the right-leaning daily Le Figaro highlighted the cynicism still felt by many French. "Though his attorneys claimed ... that he agreed to be judged like an ordinary person, the facts show that a former president isn't a citizen like the others, except in the face of illness." ($1 = 0.729 Euros)

(Writing by Alexandria Sage; Editing by David Stamp)