Court to rule if Chirac will face corruption trial

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The Independent Online

The French President, Jacques Chirac, will know next week whether he will face a potentially ruinous series of legal actions before the presidential election next spring.

The highest French appeal court, the Cour de Cassation, yesterday weighed the legal arguments for and against the President's claim to enjoy constitutional immunity from prosecution while he remains in office. A decision will be given on Wednesday.

On balance, the court is expected to follow an earlier ruling by the constitutional council, and its own advocate-general, and declare the President to be beyond the reach of ordinary justice. But the 19 judges who sat in plenary session yesterday – all selected for their lack of declared political allegiances – are known to be jealous of their power and independence at the pinnacle of the French judicial system. They might yet spring a surprise.

Mr Chirac faces possible legal action in at least four investigations into alleged corruption at the Paris town hall while he was mayor between 1977 and 1995. He has refused even to give evidence as a witness to magistrates investigating these cases, claiming that the French constitution places the President above the normal processes of the law.

If the Cour de Cassation rules against him, he would face a legal stampede by magistrates wishing to interview him or even place him under formal investigation – one step short of a charge under the French judicial system.

With the first round of the presidential election only seven months away, this could be politically disastrous for Mr Chirac, who currently rides high in the opinion polls.

Yesterday's hearing was nominally to decide whether to allow magistrates to interview Mr Chirac in one of the more obscure outstanding cases: the alleged pillaging of funds from the city of Paris printing office to fund Mr Chirac's RPR party in the late 1980s and 1990s.

The advocate-general of the Cour de Cassation, Régis de Gouttes, said a president – as the final guarantor of the constitution and the law – must be allowed to stand above legal harassment by his political enemies. Maître Guy Lesourd, a lawyer for civil parties intervening in the case, said the court had a duty to "strip the presidency of its mask of divinity". Nothing in the constitution of the fifth republic declared the President to be above the law, except for those decisions made directly as part of his office.