With presidential elections less than a year away Jacques Chirac, the French President, faces a damaging new investigation into alleged corruption while he was Mayor of Paris in the early 1990s.
In the period 1992-95, a mysterious "Monsieur Pierac" and a "Monsieur Bernolin" paid Air France £240,000 in cash for 20 sets of air flights and hotel bills. Both men turn out to have been pseudonyms for Mr Chirac.
Three investigating magistrates have asked to interview the President on the origins of the cash, which is suspected of being part of the illegal kick-backs paid in large denomination franc notes by companies providing services to schools in the greater Paris area.
Mr Chirac has already angrily refused to answer a witness summons from another magistrate investigating other aspects of alleged illegal party funding and corruption at the Paris town hall during the President's tenure there. He has claimed that he has complete immunity from all legal proceedings while he is President of the Republic.
The new case is damaging for several reasons. It implies that cash known to have been raised illegally by Mr Chirac's party, the RPR, was used for his personal enjoyment, as well as for illicit political funding.
The 20 air journeys under investigation – on which Mr Chirac was usually accompanied by his wife, Bernadette, or his daughter, Claude, a bodyguard and sometimes a political associate – were allegedly private trips. On a trip in 1993, Mr Chirac paid in cash a bill of nearly £12,000 for a return Concorde journey to New York, hotels and a chauffeur-driven car for himself, his daughter and a bodyguard. There were 19 other journeys to destinations in France and abroad.
The Elysee Palace reacted angrily to the allegations, leaked to the magazine L'Express and published on its website. The number of journeys and the total bill quoted was inaccurate, the President's officials said, because some of the trips were made on official town hall or political business.
Some private flights and hotel bills were paid in cash, which came from "bonuses" received when Mr Chirac was Prime Minister in 1986-88 or from "personal or family funds". The pseudonyms were used on the travel agent's bills, but not the airline tickets, for security reasons, the Elysee said.
"We are astonished that this should be considered a matter for investigation and we are disturbed at how this information may be exploited politically," the President's entourage said.
The public prosector's office in Paris confirmed yesterday that it was studying a dossier on the cash-for-air-tickets affair presented by three investigating judges. The judges are suspicious that, in the age of the credit card, large sums of cash should be spent by Mr Chirac when he was Mayor of Paris.
It has been established that companies providing services to the Paris town hall, and councils in the Paris suburbs, were asked systematically to make payments in cash amounting to up to 10 per cent of the contract price.
This cash was then shared between all mainstream political parties, with the lion's share going to Mr Chirac's RPR.
The assumption has been that this cash was used to fund political campaigns. Although illegal, the French public regards these practices as being harmless. If a suspicion is created that Mr Chirac was using some of the money for personal purposes, the public reaction would be rather different.Reuse content