President Jacques Chirac has been spared all legal investigation into his dubious financial past – with presidential elections six months away.
In a much-awaited ruling, France's highest appeal court said on Wednesday that presidents were beyond the reach of the normal processes of law.
Mr Chirac – implicated in at least three judicial inquiries into corrupt activities at Paris town hall while he was the mayor – will be untouchable until 2007 if he wins the election in late April and early May.
The Cour de Cassation said presidents cannot be prosecuted, or formally investigated, even for offences allegedly committed before they took office. This confirmed a ruling made by the constitutional council in 1999, although the appeal court said the earlier decision was not legally binding.
On the surface, all now looks set for the President to win a second term. He is riding high in the polls; he has been bathed in a statesman-like glow by the US-led war on terrorism; and his Prime Minister, and principal opponent, Lionel Jospin, is wrestling with a weakening economy and a quarrelsome left-green coalition.
Only the possibility that his allegedly murky activities at Paris town hall might catch up with him seemed likely to trip up Mr Chirac before the two-round election. Unless there are devastating revelations in the press – and there have been rumours of another scandal about to break – Mr Chirac seems safe from his own past.
Political commentators warn, however, that the result of the election is not cut and dried. French politics and public attitudes are notoriously volatile. Mr Jospin remains relatively popular.
A recovery in the economy or an outbreak of civil war among Mr Chirac's nominal supporters on the French right could yet steer events in Mr Jospin's direction.
Mr Chirac's name has come up in at least three overlapping investigations into illegal party funding, personal enrichment and vote-rigging at Paris town hall while he was mayor from 1977 to 1995. It is alleged that he organised a network of kickbacks on public contracts on schools, public housing and printing, to help finance his neo-Gaullist party, the RPR.
It was also alleged earlier this year that some of this cash was diverted for Mr Chirac's private use, to fund holidays for himself, his family and friends.
Yesterday's court decision did not go entirely Mr Chirac's way. The 19 judges ruled that the time limit on legal proceedings should be suspended to expose a president to prosecution in the normal way as soon as he leaves office.
They stated, however, that the president of the republic – as the people's elected guarantor of the institutions of the state – cannot be forced to give evidence; cannot be prosecuted in normal courts; and cannot be placed under investigation by magistrates.
The judges said a similar judgment made by the Conseil Constitutionel in dubious circumstances in 1999 was not binding on itself or other courts. But they then went on to repeat, almost exactly, the constitutional council's much disputed interpretation of article 68 of the constitution. The appeal judges may, without admitting it, have wished to avoid an unprecedented collision between the two supreme arbiters of the law. Article 68 states that the president "benefits from immunity, except for high treason, for acts performed in the exercise of his functions".
It stretches logic and language to interpret this as a blanket immunity from prosecution for acts committed before a president is elected. Nevertheless, the appeal court has followed the council in doing just that.