Chirac On Trial In French Misuse Of Funds Case

The 78-year-old Chirac, who has lately appeared tired and weak in public, was excused from attending the first day of the trial, which marks the first time since 1945 that a former French head of state has faced criminal charges.

Chirac, still one of France’s most popular politicians, is accused of embezzling public money to fund his political party during his time as mayor of Paris between 1977 and 1995, when he became president.

The hearing — held in the same courtroom as the trial of Queen Marie Antoinette in 1793, during the French Revolution — came after 11 years of legal wrangling over allegations that Chirac used city funds to pay 28 phantom employees for political ends.

Until he left the presidency in 2007, Chirac enjoyed immunity from prosecution. If found guilty, he could face up to 10 years in prison and 150,000 euros in fines, but a suspended sentence is more likely.

The case is going ahead even though the plaintiff, the city of Paris, withdrew its complaint after Chirac agreed to pay 500,000 euros in compensation and France’s ruling UMP party said it would pay a further 1.7 million euros on his behalf.

The UMP had already made a related compensation payment of 889,000 euros in 2005, which brings the total settlement payment for phantom jobs to more than 3 million euros.

CHIRAC REMAINS POPULAR

If judges rule in favour of Monday’s appeal by one of Chirac’s nine co-defendants, France’s constitutional court will then need to decide whether the trial can go ahead — slowing down the process by several months.

An announcement on that front will be made on Tuesday, said Judge Dominique Pauthe. However, he did not say whether Chirac was expected to attend court that day as initially planned.

Should Chirac himself stand in the dock, it would be the first time a former head of state has faced criminal charges since Marshal Philippe Petain, a former first world war hero who led France’s government during Nazi occupation. Petain was found guilty of treason by a court in 1945 after the liberation.

It would also be a victory for prosecutors facing political pressure to abandon proceedings against the former president.

Four years after the end of his 12-year presidential term, Chirac remains a popular figure. He was applauded by the public and mobbed by journalists last month when he showed up at a farm show in Paris, tasting beer and chatting to farmers.

Many politicians, including Budget Minister Francois Baroin and Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, have said they were saddened that the trial of their political mentor would go ahead.

But despite his popularity — an IFOP poll last July showed that Chirac was France’s most popular political figure — many French people see the trial as a test of whether courts will treat him differently from other politicians accused of crimes.

A BVA poll this week showed that 56 percent of French people wanted Chirac to face trial, versus 31 percent against.

“Justice applies to all French people,” Dominique de Villepin, a former prime minister who was once a Chirac protege, told i>tele news channel on Sunday. “Sometimes — even when we find it unfair — we must agree to explain, to be held accountable, especially those in power.” Reuters