Chirac Ordered to Face Trial in France
By ALAN COWELL
Published: October 30, 2009
PARIS — An investigating magistrate on Friday ordered the former French president, Jacques Chirac, to stand trial on corruption charges dating to his time years ago as mayor of Paris, reinforcing the whiff of alleged malfeasance swirling around the political elite and inspiring debate about the pace of judicial processes.
If he comes to trial, Mr. Chirac will be the first former French head of state to be prosecuted for corruption, offering a humiliating book-end to a career as a towering presence in French politics for more than 30 years. A statement from his office described him as “serene” in face of the accusations.
The order by the magistrate, Xavière Simeoni, may still be challenged by public prosecutors who have already requested that the charges against the conservative Mr. Chirac, 76, be abandoned since there were no grounds to pursue them and some had expired under the statute of limitations.
If the prosecutors appeal Friday’s order, it could take months for judges to determine whether he should face trial on charges of diverting public funds, which carry a maximum 10 years jail sentence and a $210,000 fine. The development came at a time when one of Mr. Chirac’s most prominent erstwhile aides, the former prime minister Dominique de Villepin, is in court defending himself against separate charges of planning a smear campaign in 2003 and 2004 to thwart the ambitions of Nicolas Sarkozy, a political rival who is the current president.
The charges against Mr. Chirac and nine other people relate to his years as mayor of Paris from 1977 to 1995, and involve accusations of awarding contracts for fictitious positions as city advisers in return for political favors. Public suspicion about his past followed him through his years as president.
Mr. Chirac was elected president in 1995 and remained in office until 2007. His position as president gave him constitutional immunity from prosecution, which fell away when he left office. Preliminary embezzlement charges were filed soon after he stepped down, but he denied them vigorously in a letter to the newspaper Le Monde in November 2007.
“Never were the resources of the City of Paris used for ambitions other than to benefit Parisians,” the letter said. “Never was there personal enrichment. Never was there a ‘system’.” While he was still in office, several of Chirac’s aides faced trial on corruption charges, including the former prime minister Alain Juppé, convicted in 2004 of party finance irregularities.
More recently, a Paris court last Tuesday ordered a three-year prison term for a former interior minister, Charles Pasqua, and a hefty, $562,000 fine for Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, son of the late President François Mitterrand, for their involvement in illegal arms trafficking to Angola in the 1990s.
In a statement, Mr. Chirac’s office said the charges related to 21 contracts, but that he was “serene and determined to establish before a tribunal that none of the jobs that remained under discussion were non-existent jobs.”
Those charged with him include accused recipients of unlawful largess including a former minister, Michel Roussin; the former labor leader, Marc Blondel; and Jean de Gaulle, the grandson of former president Charles de Gaulle.
Friday’s ruling drew an ambiguous response from some French politicians, including adversaries of Mr. Chirac like Ségolène Royal, a former Socialist presidential contender. “These are old stories and, today, Jacques Chirac probably has lots of things on his conscience, but at the same time he has given a lot to the country,” she told Europe 1 radio. “He deserves to be left alone, but justice must be the same for everyone.”
“Even if he deserves this, it’s not good for France’s image,” she said.
Some of Mr. Chirac’s allies saw the magistrate’s order as what Jean-François Probst, a former adviser, called a “settling of the scores at the highest levels of power” 20 years after the alleged transgressions took place. But critics such as André Vallini, a Socialist legislator, said that, while the order showed the workings of an independent French judiciary, “I have the feeling that this is coming pretty late.”
The magistrate’s order dampened what might have been a celebratory time for Mr. Chirac who, according to French media reports, was vacationing in Morocco when the news broke. His memoirs are due to be published next month, and opinion surveys this month showed that, in marked contrast to 2007 when he left office as president, he ranked as the most popular politician in France.
A trial would place Mr. Chirac in uncomfortable company: the last French former head of state to face trial was Marshal Henri Phillipe Pétain, who faced treason charges in 1945 for collaborating with the Nazi occupation.
Scott Sayare contributed reporting.
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