France: Jacques Chirac corruption trial opens

Former French President Jacques Chirac leaves his office in Paris, 7 March 2011 Under French law the former president is not obliged to be in court

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Former French President Jacques Chirac has gone on trial on charges he misused public funds while he was mayor of Paris, before he was president.

Mr Chirac is accused of paying cronies between 1977 and 1995 for city hall jobs that did not exist.

The 78-year-old has always denied the charges.

He is the first French ex-head of state to face criminal charges since Field Marshal Philippe Petain was convicted of treason after World War II.

Rumours of ill health

Monday's opening hearing was scheduled to deal with procedural matters.

Nine other people are on trial, including Mr Chirac's former chief of staff Remy Chardon, 61, whose lawyer is aiming to have the case adjourned on the grounds that bringing the two cases together is unconstitutional.

Under French law the former president is not obliged to be in court but he is due to appear on Tuesday despite rumours of ill health.

Analysis

For more than 20 years Jacques Chirac had avoided prosecution, protected by his presidential immunity. But four years after leaving office, the law has finally caught up with him.

He is being tried for embezzlement and abuse of trust in the same courtroom in which Marie-Antoinette was sentenced to death. The allegation is that while mayor of Paris Mr Chirac oversaw a scheme in which his political allies were given bogus jobs on the Paris city payroll.

Mr Chirac accepts the scheme existed but denies that he had any knowledge while in office. There is no suggestion that he profited personally, more that the money was channelled into his drive for power.

His family have denied rumours he is suffering from Alzheimer's. But during this trial he will be provided with an armchair from which to give evidence and a private room in which to rest.

Mr Chirac's wife has rejected claims that the former president is suffering from Alzheimer's.

The trial brings together two separate cases, both involving allegations that people were employed on the Paris mayor's payroll while working instead for Mr Chirac's RPR party.

One case, brought by a Paris magistrate, involves charges of embezzlement and breach of trust over the employment of 21 people.

The other case for which Mr Chirac is charged with conflict of interest, involves seven jobs and has been brought by an investigating judge in Nanterre.

Paris settlement

Mr Chirac's trial started even though the main plaintiff has dropped out. The city of Paris withdrew its complaint last year after reaching a settlement with the former president and the ruling UMP party amounting to 2.2m euros (£1.9m; $3m).

The prosecutor in charge of the original investigation believes there is insufficient evidence to bring a conviction.

It is only because two pressure groups have picked up the case and pursued it that it will go ahead at all.

In theory Mr Chirac could face up to 10 years in prison, but most legal experts say even if he were convicted it is unlikely he will serve any time.

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