Chiracs face new sleaze claims days before vote

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Fresh evidence emerged yesterday that Jacques Chirac, the French President, systematically cheated the taxpayers of Paris when he was Mayor by charging the city for fictitious grocery bills.

The new evidence, gathered by the investigative newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné, has its ridiculous side.

In the space of 18 months in 1994 and 1995, Mr and Mrs Chirac charged the town hall for fruit and vegetables apparently costing 231,000 French francs (about £23,000) – including huge quantities of oranges and grapefruits – which their favourite greengrocer has no record of selling.

They reclaimed the money in cash, which the newspaper alleged was used for other private or political purposes.

Overall, according to an official auditors' report leaked last week, the Chiracs charged the city's taxpayers Fr1.4m for food, drink and cigarettes consumed in their private apartments at the town hall over eight years. Two-thirds of this money was claimed in cash.

"Fr231,000 of fruit and vegetables? I never sold all that to the Chiracs," the greengrocer told the newspaper yesterday.

The allegations would be absurd if not for two things. First, the new evidence fits a pattern of allegations – and persuasive evidence – of the systematic pillaging of the taxpayers' purse by Mr Chirac for political and private purposes over many years.

These allegations concern not groceries worth tens of thousands of pounds, but tens of millions of pounds of public money in kickbacks on contracts for schools and municipal housing.

Second, the allegations have surfaced only 10 days before the first round of a presidential election, which three out of four recent polls suggest that Mr Chirac will win. The fourth, to be published by Paris Match today, shows a narrow victory for his principal rival, Lionel Jospin, the Socialist Prime Minister.

There is no overt sign that the new allegations – or the old ones, including five separate, blocked criminal investigations – have had any serious effect on Mr Chirac's popularity. They have contributed to an unhealthy mood of rejection of all politics and politicians but they have not damaged his core support on the French right.

Mr Chirac was greeted rapturously by an admittedly pre-chosen audience of centre-right local officials and supporters in Rouen yesterday.

The audience, clearly buoyed by the polls, was in obstreperous good spirits, chanting "Chi-rac, Presi-dent" and "On va gagner" (we are going to win).

Mr Chirac, 69, outlined plans for a reform of local and regional government and the de-centralisation of France, which he summed up as a "certain idea of local democracy".

After the meeting, it was put it to a number of Chirac supporters that their favourite's "certain idea of local democracy" in his 18 years as Mayor of Paris was to fund his political activities, and his private life, at the taxpayer's expense.

The hall was packed with conservative, law-abiding people. How was it that they took so little interest in the alleged financial wrongdoing of their favourite?

The response was a wall of denial, even aggression. "Why didn't you ask the same questions of [François] Mitterrand when he was in power?" said one woman in her sixties with bright blonde hair.

Another man, a small-town mayor of the centre-right in an expensive double-breasted suit, said that all the allegations were "trumped up by the justice system, which is in the hands of the left.

"In any case, even if some of the allegations are true, politicians have always behaved that way in France."

Whether the new allegations will deny Mr Chirac the swing and uncertain votes he needs to defeat Mr Jospin in the second-round run-off on 5 May remains to be seen.

At present, the possibility is that the French electorate might go to the polls protesting about the iniquity of politicians, only to re-elect as President a man who is allegedly the most persistent and successful rogue of them all.