Chirac is implicated in £500,000 bribe scandal

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The Independent Online

Jacques Chirac received a £500,000 cash kick-back on public contracts when he was mayor of Paris, according to a video-taped confession by a former official of the president's party published yesterday.

Jacques Chirac received a £500,000 cash kick-back on public contracts when he was mayor of Paris, according to a video-taped confession by a former official of the president's party published yesterday.

The confession, taped four years ago, three years' before the official died, is the closest direct link yet established between Mr Chirac and allegations of corruption practices in Paris town hall during his mayorship from 1977 to 1995. It might be called the smoking gun from beyond the grave.

The President's office broke with its normal practice and issued a formal denial of the claims yesterday afternoon.

The fact that the allegations are made by a dead man - Jean-Claude Méry, a property developer and former member of the central committee of Mr Chirac's party, the conservative Rally for the Republic (RPR) - will limit their legal impact.

The political consequences may be explosive. Mr Méry made the private video-recording - allegedly for his own protection - when his role in corrupt funding of the RPR was under criminal investigation in 1996. In the transcript of the tape, published yesterday by the newspaper, Le Monde, Mr Mery alleges that he was raking in up to £4m a year in cash from companies working on public housing and schools for the Paris town hall for more than seven years up to 1996.

Mr Méry says this money was divided secretly between all the main French political parties, with the lion's share for Mr Chirac's RPR and lesser payments to the Communist party and the Socialist party, whose first secretary was then Lionel Jospin, the present Prime Minister. Mr Méry goes on to allege however that one payment of FF5m (about £500,000) in cash in 1986 was "paid directly" not to the RPR, but to Mr Chirac, who was then prime minister as well as Paris mayor.

Mr Méry describes a meeting in October of that year, when he visited Michel Roussin, the head of Mr Chirac's private office at the Matignon Palace, the official residence and workplace of French prime ministers. He says that Mr Chirac came to the meeting and was present in the room when he placed FF5m in cash on Mr Roussin's desk.

Mr Méry said the money came from kick-backs on heating contracts for public housing which had been awarded by the city of Paris to two large companies, Lyonnaise des Eaux and Générale des Eaux (now Vivendi).

Was this money being "paid directly" to the RPR, Mr Méry asks himself on the tape. "No - to Mr Chirac," he replies.

Mr Roussin's lawyer formally denied this allegation yesterday. So did President's official spokeswoman, Catherine Colonna, in a statement from the steps of the Elysée Palace, the presidential residence.

The allegations are made in an hour-long video tape, recorded at Mr Méry's request by a freelance television producer, Arnaud Hamelin, in May 1996.

At the time, Mr Méry was under criminal investigation for his part in the alleged illegal funding of Mr Chirac'sparty, the RPR. Mr Méry denied any wrongdoing, despite a three-month spell in jail under daily questioning by an examining magistrate.

In the tape, Mr Méry said that he was making the statement "in case anything happens to me". According to Le Monde, he went on to warn several political figures that he had recorded the tape in order to encourage them to keep their promises to protect him.

Mr Méry told Mr Hamelin to keep the tape secret while he was alive but to release it, if he wished, after his death. Mr Méry died of cancer last year.

Both Mr Hamelin and Le Monde denied any political motive for releasing the transcript of the tape now.

The timing is, however, especially embarrassing for Mr Chirac. It comes just when his party is preparing to dump Jean Tiberi - Mr Chirac's hand-picked successor as mayor of Paris - for alleged corrupt activities. The "Méry tape" bolsters the claim of Mr Tiberi's supporters that he has done nothing which has not been common practice in the RPR and Paris town hall for years.