Chirac faces corruption trial that threatens to leave his legacy in tatters

France's ex-President is finally due in court, accused of embezzling €2m to further his career. So why is he still such a popular figure?

In a small village lost in the wooded hills of South-west France, there is a building that looks like a cross between a battery chicken farm and a provincial airport terminal.

The building complex contains 15,000 objects of epic eclecticism. They include: a 5ft-long, stuffed, prehistoric fish; a pair of unworn blue cowboy-boots; a porcelain model of a sumo wrestler standing on one foot; a plastic cow; a New York Fire Department helmet; a chess set in which all four bishops are Desmond Tutu ; and a Winston Churchill pen and cigar set (presented by the grateful people of Britain).

The building houses the Musée du Président Jacques Chirac, a tribute to his 12 years as president of France (1995 to 2007) and the permanent resting place for the tons of ceremonial bric-a-brac that he received while in office.

This institution – one of the weirdest and least commercially successful museums in the world – is a perfect monument to the Chirac era. It has some wonderful moments. It is full of incronguous odds and ends. It attempts a bit of everything and it finally takes you nowhere very much.

The museum may also be emblematic of Mr Chirac's career in another way. It relies heavily on subsidies from the taxpayer. The €16m (£13.7m) that it cost to build the museum came from French national and regional governments and from the European Union's regional development fund. For each €4 that a visitor pays to enter the museum, the Corrèze departément council has to pay out another €30 to keep it afloat.

Over the next three weeks, a court in Paris is due to hear evidence that the whole of Mr Chirac's career was subsidised – illegally – by the taxpayers, not of Corrèze (his provincial fiefdom) but of Paris (his political power base). There is a possibility that the trial will be postponed. A last-minute constitutional objection may have to be referred to higher authority.

Only two previous former French heads of state have been placed on trial, Louis XVI in 1792 and Field Marshall Phillippe Pétain in 1945.

Beside the charges faced by his predecessors – "treachery against the people" and "treason" – the accusations against Mr Chirac may appear trivial. He is accused of embezzling, while mayor of Paris between 1977 and 1995, about €2m in Parisian taxpayers' money to fund his political party and to give sweeteners to his friends and public figures, including Charles de Gaulle's grandson.

This will be a trial with no prosecution and, in a sense, no victim. The public prosecution service concluded last year that Mr Chirac had no case to answer. The main victim, the city of Paris, has withdrawn its complaint after being reimbursed by Mr Chirac's friends and Nicolas Sarkozy's centre-right party.

Even if convicted (which is far from certain), Mr Chirac will probably get no more than a fine and a suspended sentence. At 78, he is, his friends and wife point out, an infirm old man who does not always recognise his friends and is given to uncharacteristic bursts of bad temper. They ask why he is being tried at all.

The former president is on trial because two sets of independent examining magistrates, who had painstakingly investigated two separate sets of corruption allegations against him, overruled the state prosecutor. They insisted the public interest demanded a trial because the accusations against Mr Chirac pointed to a prolonged and shameless conspiracy to pillage public funds over nearly two decades. As mayor of Paris, they argued, he created and ran a complex system of "embezzlement" to "increase his influence" and finance his rise to power.

The main case against Mr Chirac at the month-long trial will be made by two anti-corruption pressure groups which have declared themselves to be civil plaintiffs. They will argue that the relatively minor allegations against the former president are serious enough, but just the tip of the iceberg. Mr Chirac's now-defunct, centre-right party, the Rassemblement pour la République (RPR), was, they say, funded for years by a series of interlocking scams. These allegedly included kickbacks on Paris town hall contracts. They also included the placing of party officials on the town hall payroll and the appointment of generously paid special advisers to the mayor of Paris, most of whom had no connection with the French capital.

There is undisputed evidence that 21 people who were paid by the town hall actually worked for the RPR, which has been merged into Mr Sarkozy's Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP). There were probably far more. What is in dispute is whether Mr Chirac – then mayor of Paris and leader of the RPR – knew what was going on.

Amongst the phantom "special advisers" was a man who worked in Mr Chirac's constituency office, 300 miles from the capital and a few miles from Mr Chirac's château, near the village of Sarran, in Corréze. Sarran is now dominated by the Chirac museum.

In one respect, the museum is not emblematic of Mr Chirac's life and career. Since he was succeeded by his estranged former protégé, Mr Sarkozy, in 2007, visits to the Chirac museum have slumped. When The Independent called in last week, there were only four other members of the public on two floors of exhibitions. In the two large car parks there were three cars and a camper van. Attendance reached over 60,000 in the first full year in 2002; it fell to less than 30,000 in 2009.

Despite this month's trial, Mr Chirac has never been so popular. Recent polls have made him the most-liked political figure in France, with over 70 per cent approval ratings – much higher than anything that he achieved while in office.

When Mr Chirac attended the annual agricultural show in Paris last month – a rare public outing for him these days – he was mobbed by admirers for 20 minutes.

Mr Chirac's popularity is partly a mirror image of Mr Sarkozy's unpopularity. Mr Sarkozy came to power promising to be a kind of "anti-Chirac": more purposeful, more hands-on, more consistent, less hostile to American influence. After nearly four years of Mr Sarkozy's vainglorious and frenetic leadership, many French people – including, bizarrely, many on the left – now look back at Mr Chirac as a rascally, wise and reassuring uncle who did not achieve much but at least had the good sense to oppose the Iraq war in 2003.

Among the other visitors to the museum was a local woman, Josette, 53, and her 10-year-old grandson. "We've looked around before and there's not much worth seeing," she said. "But then again, there's nothing else to do here in the school holidays."

Asked about today's trial, she said: "That is all just politics. All politicians in France find ways of taking money to fund what they do... Chirac was no different but he was, at least, more human than some of the others.

"[François] Mitterrand was a cold man. Sarkozy is a cold man. I think people look back now and they think of Chirac as a kindly man."

But there was also, his critics and accusers argue, another Mr Chirac: a cynical, calculating and, when occasion demanded, brutal politician. This was the man who: back-stabbed his way to leadership of the Gaullist movement in the 1970s; betrayed President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing in 1981; was, successively, a virulent Euro-sceptic and then a flag-waving European; and artfully dispatched all centre-right rivals, until Mr Sarkozy came along. Over the next four weeks, with no help from the state prosecutor, the trial judge, Dominique Pauthe, must decide whether Mr Chirac was also a spider at the centre of a complex web of embezzlement of public funds.

The first day of the trial today will be given over to procedural arguments. Convoluted objections on constitutional principle have been put forward by the lawyer for a minor defendant, almost certainly with the connivance of the Chirac clan.

The ex-president will not attend. If the trial goes ahead, Mr Chirac will be present from tomorrow until 3 April, in the same courtroom in the Palais de Justice in Paris, which also witnessed the trial of Queen Marie Antoinette in 1793.

Mr Chirac does not risk the guillotine. All the same, his wife has told friends that she is worried.

Bernadette Chirac, who is still a local councillor in Correze, was a main mover in the creation of the Chirac museum in Sarran as a monument to his elusive legacy. She is said to be fearful that – whether her husband is convicted or not – his legacy will be forever tainted by the odour of corruption.

Leaders on Trial

Jacques Chirac

The president for 12 years from 1995 is accused of embezzling taxpayers' money while mayor of Paris to fund his political party.

Louis XVI

Tried and sent to the guillotine in 1793 following the French Revolution. Among the charges made against Louis XVI, were attacking the "sovereignty of the people" and "working to overthrow" the constitution.

Field Marshal Philippe Pétain

Convicted of treason and sentenced to death in 1945, later commuted to solitary confinement for life. A war hero in the First World War, Pétain, was appointed vice-premier during Hitler's invasion of France. He later sued for peace, and became "Chief of State" for the collaborationist Vichy regime in the south. Following his post-war conviction for treason, he died in prison.

Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreEXCLUSIVE The Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Colombia's James Rodriguez celebrates one of his goals during the FIFA World Cup 2014 round of 16 match between Colombia and Uruguay at the Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Antoine Griezmann has started two of France’s four games so far
Life and Style
techYahoo Japan launches service to delete your files and email your relatives when you die
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Arts and Entertainment
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>
filmRobert Downey Jr named Hollywood's highest paid actor for second year running
Life and Style
Dale Bolinger arranged to meet the girl via a fetish website
Sign here, please: Magna Carta Island
propertyYours for a cool £4m
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor