French politicians play out farce of corruption and mudslinging

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WITHIN three weeks of the kick-off of the World Cup, when the eyes of much of the globe will turn to France, the politics of the country are dissolving into a Third World farce. Could President Jacques Chirac be placed under formal examination for alleged corruption, during the course of the World Cup? It is unlikely to happen so soon; it may not happen at all; but it is no longer unthinkable.

What seems more imminent is the judicial questioning, possibly the formal examination - one step short of a charge - of Alain Juppe, mayor of Bordeaux, centre-right Prime Minister until last year and a long-time ally of the President.

The brief arrest and questioning on Monday of Xaviere Tiberi, wife of the Mayor of Paris - another close Chirac ally - tipped French politics into a three-day paroxysm of name-calling and would-be dirty-tricks. Mr Chirac's neo-Gaullist party, the RPR, attempted to divert attention from its own suffering by smearing the Socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin. The attempt failed, making the Gaullists look incompetent.

A brief truce was enforced yesterday by the Ascension Day public holiday and a joint call for calm, in the interests of "French democracy", by Mr Chirac and Mr Jospin. The calm is unlikely to last.

Several judicial investigations have been in progress for two years into the finances of the RPR, the party founded by the President in 1976. It is alleged that the party raised cashby demanding kick-backs on public contracts awarded by the city of Paris. (Mr Chirac was Mayor of Paris from 1977 to 1995.) It is also alleged that the city of Paris spent pounds 10m a year to employ up to 300 people who were actually working for the RPR; or were friends and family of RPR politicians.

When Mr Chirac became President in 1995, he handed over the mayorship of the capital to one of his acolytes, Jean Tiberi. He and his wife, Xaviere, it is alleged, continued the dubious fund-raising, possibly extending it to more direct forms of private enrichment. In one of the few firm pieces of evidence to come to light, Ms Tiberi is known to have received pounds 21,000 from an RPR-controlled council in the greater Paris suburbs for a mis-typed, badly-spelled and plagiarised report on "the French-speaking world" (a subject about which she knew nothing).

The investigation of the mayor's wife began two years ago amid high farce - literally. The government (then wholly RPR-controlled) engaged a helicopter to search a remote area of the Himalayas to find a tame public prosecutor who was on holiday. The government wanted him to block the inquiry. Part of the RPR fury this week has been fuelled by the publication of a self- justifying book by the prosecutor, Laurent Davenas, relating his experiences. The book is called Letter from the Himalayas.

The febrile atmosphere within the Gaullist party is also fuelled by fear. Authority in the party has collapsed since Mr Chirac called and lost an early general election last year. A faction of RPR politicians is trying to oust Mr Tiberi from the Paris town hall; they are led, farce-upon-farce, by Jacques Toubon, the man who, as justice minister in 1996, sent the helicopter to try (unsuccessfully) to help the Tiberis.

The fear is that relationships within the party are now so bad that senior people are beginning for the first time to tell tales to the investigating magistrates. If so, the trail of inquiries leads directly to Mr Juppe - Prime Minister from 1995 to 1997, but previously the Paris city treasurer - and beyond Mr Juppe, to the President himself.

In a crass attempt to divert attention by setting fire to the house of the Socialist party, an RPR deputy alleged in parliament on Tuesday that the Prime Minister, Mr Jospin, had a "fictitious job" in the foreign ministry while working for the Socialists in 1993-7. This allegation, it emerged yesterday, was planted by Mr Juppe and Mr Chirac. It turns out, however, that Mr Jospin returned quite properly to his foreign ministry career when he lost his parliamentary seat in 1993. He had asked for a post in Paris, or for a small embassy abroad, but he had been refused, for political reasons, by the then foreign minister - Alain Juppe.