France's Chirac protests innocence in absentia

Reuters News
Posted: Sep 23, 2011 12:18 PM
France's Chirac protests innocence in absentia

By Alexandria Sage and Thierry Lévêque

PARIS (Reuters) - Former French president Jacques Chirac gave an impassioned defense of his morals on Friday in a statement read out by a lawyer during his trial over the misuse of public funds when he was mayor of Paris in the 1990s.

Chirac, 78, was excused from attending due to his failing memory. He vowed to abide by the decision of the court which is widely expected to dismiss the case.

On the final day of the high-profile three-week trial, the culmination of nearly a decade of legal back-and-forth, defense lawyer Jean Veil read a statement he said was written by Chirac, who has been in poor health since a stroke a few years ago.

"I assert that I have not committed any fault -- neither legal nor moral," Veil quoted Chirac as saying.

"I want the French people to know that there are not two Chiracs ... there is only a man made from a block of flesh, blood and principles."

A few dozen spectators, attorneys and reporters listened to Chirac's words in a courtroom adorned with yellow silk walls, carved leather chairs and fleur de lys insignias, the same chamber where former Queen Marie Antoinette was condemned to the guillotine during the French Revolution.

Chirac 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 long stint as mayor.

The ex-president has denied the charges and even prosecutors, who owe their jobs to the executive branch, have argued for the case to be dismissed. The court could announce its decision any time in the days or weeks ahead.

Under French law, judges can proceed with a trial even over the objections of the prosecution.

Chirac, while denying wrongdoing, has already reimbursed the town hall 500,000 euros ($670,000), while his conservative political party has paid back 1.7 million euros ($2.3 million).

He has denied that he attempted to pad the town hall despite accusations from a French anti-corruption group, Anticor, that the 28 jobs at issue are just a small sampling of a much wider system put in place by Chirac to increase his political influence.

Many of the allegedly phantom employees had neither a telephone nor office at the town hall, and many could not present any evidence of work performed on behalf of the mayor.

Striking at times a poignant and humble tone, Chirac stated that he wished to defend himself "in the evening of his life" and yet told the court he would submit to the will of the law. Chirac's long political life and increasing frailty in recent years has generated widespread sympathy.

"You have the right to judge the mayor that I was," said Chirac, whose presidential immunity expired when he was succeeded by President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007.

Despite the widespread belief that the case will end in dismissal, the trial is historic as it is the first time since World War Two that a French head of state has been tried on criminal charges in a court.

The case goes to the three-judge panel for deliberations following Friday's proceedings.

(Reporting by Alexandria Sage; Editing by Caatherine Bremer and Robert Woodward)