Jacques Chirac, the former French president, was accused yesterday of embezzling public funds. M. Chirac, who will be 76 next week, is the first former president to face criminal proceedings after leaving office.
He was placed under formal investigation for misusing Paris taxpayers' money to fund political allies and friends when he was mayor from 1977 to 1995.
Similar accusations are expected to follow in at least two other criminal investigations into the alleged, systematic pillaging of the town hall budget for political gain. It will probably be several years before any of these cases come to court.
If found guilty, M. Chirac could, in theory, go to prison. Previous court decisions in similar cases, and his advanced age, suggest he would be more likely to be given a stiff fine and a suspended sentence.
Since losing the immunity of presidential office six months ago, M. Chirac has become vulnerable to legal action in at least three investigations into the misuse of Parisian municipal cash while he was mayor.
In an article in Le Monde, yesterday, the former president denied that there was any conspiracy to use town hall money to fund his then political party, the Rassemblement pour la République (RPR), or to reward allies.
He admitted approving a series of disputed short-term job contracts – including a chauffeur for an RPR senator – but denied that the jobs were unjustified.
"Town hall resources were never used to further any ambition other than to serve Parisians," M. Chirac wrote. "There was never any suggestion of personal enrichment."
Nonetheless, the investigating magistrate, Xavière Simeoni, yesterday placed M. Chirac under investigation for "embezzlement of public funds". She questioned him for three hours. Further questioning is expected next month.
To be placed under investigation – or mis en examen – by an examining magistrate is one step short of a formal charge. The magistrate has to investigate all the facts of the case, both for and against the accused, before saying whether court action should follow.
Although the accusations against M. Chirac cover relatively small amounts of money, they are said to be part of a systematic use of public cash to fund his political party and his political career. There is no accusation of personal gain, except in one other investigation into flights taken by the Chirac family.