Chirac excused from first day of public embezzlement trial

The trial of the former French president Jacques Chirac for misuse of public funds began yesterday, but proceedings were promptly delayed by an appeal from a co-defendant, which could see the trial postponed for months.

Mr Chirac, 78, was excused from attending the first day of the trial, which marks the first time since 1945 that a former French head of state has faced criminal charges.

Mr Chirac, still one of France's most popular politicians, is accused of embezzling public money to fund his political party during his time as mayor of Paris between 1977 and 1995, when he became president. He denies any wrongdoing.

The hearing came after 11 years of legal wrangling over allegations that Mr Chirac used city funds to pay 28 phantom employees for political ends.

Until he left the presidency in 2007, Mr Chirac enjoyed immunity from prosecution. If found guilty, he could face up to 10 years in prison and €150,000 (£130,000) in fines, but a suspended sentence is more likely.

The case is going ahead even though the plaintiff, the city of Paris, withdrew its complaint after Mr Chirac agreed to pay €500,000 in compensation and France's ruling UMP party said it would pay a further €1.7m on his behalf.