Corruption inquiry creeps up on Chirac

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THE WIFE of the Mayor of Paris - a one-time close ally of President Jacques Chirac - was arrested yesterday as part of an investigation into the corrupt funding of the president's party, the RPR.

At the same time, new evidence emerged which pointed directly to the systematic embezzlement of city funds, for political and personal use, while Mr Chirac was the mayor of Paris in the 1980s.

A former senior city official, himself convicted of corruption, said that the Town Hall under Mr Chirac employed 300 "fictitious" people, at a cost of pounds 10m a year. These "employees" ranged from the wives and children of politicians, to party officials, to "writers, poets and dancers".

The Socialist Justice Minister, Elisabeth Guigou, questioned by a radio interviewer, said that there was no constitutional reason why the judicial investigation into RPR corruption could not be extended to President Chirac himself.

The inquiries into the byzantine affairs, and finances, of the neo-Gaullist party, founded by Mr Chirac in 1976, have been creeping closer and closer to the President for two years. In recent weeks, he has been cited by name in judicial documents for the first time.

What makes yesterday's developments even more threatening for the head of the French state is that the RPR has, itself, collapsed into a bear- pit of vicious in-fighting in recent weeks. The woman arrested yesterday, Xaviere Tiberi, wife of the Mayor of Paris, Jean Tiberi, is said to detest Mr Chirac - once a close family friend and ally - for failing to come to the aid of her husband.

Mr Tiberi, hand-picked by Mr Chirac to replace him as mayor when he became President in 1995, has been under savage assault - one private meeting actually came to blows - from another section of the RPR in the French capital. Mr Chirac has refused, publicly, to intervene to save his old friend. The knowledge that the lid might be about to blow off the illegal funding of the party is widely believed to be one factor fuelling this civil-strife.

The President's entourage is said to fear that Mrs Tiberi, who was placed under arrest yesterday morning, might implicate Mr Chirac even more deeply in the investigations. According to the newspaper Liberation, her husband has warned the President that she is "fragile" and liable to crack under pressure.

Mrs Tiberi is under investigation for having been paid pounds 21,000, by an RPR council in the Paris suburbs for a bogus report on business opportunities in the French-speaking world. Mrs Tiberi knew nothing about the subject; the report was full of platitudes, spelling mistake and typing errors. The councillor who commissioned it, also under investigation, said he paid the money to influence Mr Tiberi and through him Mr Chirac.

This is regarded as just one exposed corner of a complex tangle of false accounting, fictitious jobs and kick-backs on commercial contracts, used to fund the RPR in the 1980s. But how much does Mrs Tiberi know and how much is she prepared to talk?