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Chirac embroiled in homes scandal

The tangled scandal of Paris council housing has taken on a new, bitter dimension with the revelation that some "elite" flats leased out by the council originally belonged to Jews who were deported during the Nazi occupation, and which were never returned to them.

A small charge of dynamite in the revelations, which was omitted by the French press when it reported the evidence of Jewish ownership, is that the tenant of one such flat is none other than the brother-in-law of the French President, Jacques Chirac.

The allegations are made in a book which has just been published, and which details the history of what is known as the city's "Domaine Prive". This is the disparate collection of more than 300 buildings, including at least 1,300 flats - the number may be twice or three times higher - which are owned and maintained by the council and let at far below market rents to hand-picked members of the political and cultural elite.

The existence of the "domaine", which was long shrouded in secrecy, periodically came to the attention of the city auditors in post-war years - only to be swept deftly under the carpet again, once the strength of vested interests became clear.

But last year, the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, who had managed to lodge himself and four members of his family in such flats while head of the Paris city council's accounts department, was forced to choose between prosecution and moving out. When the extent of the property holdings of the mayor, Jean Tiberi, became known shortly afterwards - both his adult children were lodged at cut-price rents, while letting out a total of four flats they owned at market rents - the game seemed to be almost up.

Mr Tiberi, a newly re- elected mayor with a smaller majority than his predecessor, Mr Chirac, announced a full audit of the "domaine prive" and promised the better- quality flats would be sold on the open market when they were vacated, or the leases came up for renewal. The rest would be distributed to those on the council waiting list. City councillors were warned that if they had awarded themselves flats from this stock, they should recall the threat to prosecute Mr Juppe.

A few vacant flats have been sold. Otherwise, the inquiry is proceeding slowly. Now, as a result of the revelations made by the journalist, Brigitte Vital- Durand, in her book, further sales have been frozen, pending research into the history of the flats concerned. The investigations are being backed by Jewish campaigners, including Serge and Beate Klarsfeld.

On the basis of city archives and witness testimony, Ms Vital-Durand establishes that 150 flats concentrated in the southern Marais district of central Paris were obtained by the council during and immediately after the war. The council's intention, she says, was to create a district, close to the town hall, into which the city administration could spread and where the elite could be housed.

She traces the history of individual streets and houses, showing how the council used emergency slum-clearance measures decreed by the Vichy government to take over tracts of housing in the largely Jewish district of the southern Marais, on grounds of "sanitation". The deportations of 1943-3 helped to clear many of the owners and tenants who remained. Nowadays, the author says, this would be called "ethnic cleansing".

The vast majority of the buildings taken over by the council were never returned. Many of the original owners and their families died in the concentration camps. Some of the buildings were demolished. But of the few who tried to reclaim them, even fewer were successful.

A discreet leitmotif of Ms Vital-Durand's book is the juxtaposition of two families. One is the Zajdners, who died at Auschwitz, and whose daughter, Sarah, persuaded Mr Chirac, during last year's presidential election campaign, to allow her to place a memorial plaque in a garden, now owned by the council, which is all that is left of their family house at 4, Rue Eginhard. The other family are the Courcels, Chaudron de Courcel to be precise, headed by the brother of Mr Chirac's wife, Bernadette. They live next door, at number 6.