Chirac denies crisis unit

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PARIS (Reuters) - French President Jacques Chirac's office took the unusual step yesterday of denying a report that it had set up a "crisis unit" to try to block corruption probes into his Gaullist Rally for the Republic (RPR) party

"The presidency categorically denies all the allegations concerning it which were published today as the main headline in the newspaper Le Monde." an Elysee Palace statement said.

"No such crisis unit exists at the presidency which regrets that the newspaper Le Monde did not deem it necessary to verify its story before publication." said the statement which was issued within an hour of the daily hitting the news stands.

Le Monde wrote that the purported unit included Dominique de Villepin, the powerful Elysee secretary-general, and other senior figures including a magistrate assigned as Chirac's legal adviser.

A series of potentially explosive judicial probes is currently under way into practices at Paris city hall during Chirac's tenure as mayor of the capital between 1977 and his election as president in 1995.

Legal sources say magistrates are probing allegations that the municipality then had on its payroll between 150 and 300 people, many of them RPR operatives with no municipal role.

The former Gaullist prime minister, Alain Juppe, was Chirac's deputy mayor in charge of the capital's finances from 1983 to 1995 while simultaneously serving as RPR secretary-general for much of that period.

Le Monde said Chirac's advisers feared Mr Juppe would soon be put under official investigation in the probe. The paper quoted an RPR politician as saying Chirac's crisis unit was specifically aimed at protecting Mr Juppe.

The former premier later released a statement condemning the article. "It is evidence of political and media pressure aimed at influencing and disturbing justice," Mr Juppe said.