Chirac kickbacks case may be sent to appeal court

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The Independent Online

There is prima facie evidence that the French President, Jacques Chirac, was personally involved in the systematic milking of bribes from construction companies when he was Mayor of Paris, three magistrates have decided.

The magistrates, investigating the rigging of contracts for school renovation in the greater Paris area, have ruled themselves "incompetent" to question the President directly because of a constitutional ruling that places the French head of state above the law.

In doing so, however, the magistrates have opened the way to a legal challenge to this constitutional ruling, which could be heard by the highest French appeal court before the end of the year.

In an 18-page report – which was leaked yesterday to the newspaper Le Monde – the judicial investigators say they have gathered "evidence which points to the likely involvement" of the President in the school kickbacks affair.

They say they also have documentary proof that Mr Chirac and his immediate family and entourage spent £230,000 in cash on holidays all over the world in the period 1992-95. The magistrates suspect that some of the estimated £60m paid in school building kickbacks – supposedly for party political funds – may have been used to pay for these trips.

In a 90-minute live television interview at the weekend, Mr Chirac denied all charges and said the original accusation that he had spent £240,000 in cash on holidays had "gone pschitt" – that is, burst like a bubble. A revised figure now accepted by the magistrates was much smaller than that, Mr Chirac claimed. The cash, he said, had come from bonuses paid to him when he was Prime Minister in 1986-88.

In reality, the magistrates have found evidence of up to £500,000 in cash-paid holidays booked from 1992-95 through Mr Chirac's favourite travel agency at Neuilly in the western Paris suburbs. Of this total, there is proof that £230,000 was paid in cash by Mr Chirac and his immediate entourage.

The trio of magistrates have accepted the ruling of one senior, public prosecutor – based on a disputed interpretation by the constitutional watchdog, the Conseil Constitutionnel, of an article in the constitution – that the French head of state cannot be questioned as part of an ordinary, judicial investigation.

But this has opened the way for another public prosecutor, Jean-Pierre Dentilhac, to rule that the President can be questioned on his actions before he became head of state – and for the magistrates to reject his decision so that he could appeal to higher courts.

The case will now go to an appeal court in the autumn and probably to the supreme appeal court, the Cour de Cassation.