Former French President Chirac to stand trial

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The Independent Online

After years of claiming presidential immunity to avoid legal proceedings, Jacques Chirac is finally facing a court.

The former president on Monday becomes France's first former head of state to go on trial since its Nazi-era leader was exiled

That is, if the whole case isn't derailed by a last-minute protest by another defendant.

If the trial goes ahead as planned, Chirac, 78, faces a month in court on charges that he masterminded a scheme to have Paris City Hall pay for work that benefited his political party when he was mayor — before he became president in 1995.

A prison term is seen as highly unlikely, but in principle if convicted, Chirac could be jailed for up to 10 years and fined €150,000 ($210,000).

France's restive political circles are gearing up for next year's presidential race, but the fallout from this trial is unlikely to hit anyone other than Chirac and the nine other defendants including a grandson of Gen. Charles de Gaulle and a former left-wing labor union leader.

Still, the trial looms as an embarrassing coda to Chirac's 12-year presidential term, potentially denting his legacy, recent philanthropic work and image as one of France's most popular personalities since he left office.

The trial will also shine a spotlight on the underside of high-level politics that could be uncomfortable background noise for Chirac's successor and one-time protege, President Nicolas Sarkozy, who wants to rebuild his depleted poll numbers before a possible re-election bid.

The trial fuses two separate but similar cases.

Chirac will answer for only a fraction of the scandals that have hounded him over the years: the others were either thrown out for a lack of evidence or had exceeded the statute of limitations. Even for those going to court, he will answer for just 21 total jobs out of 481 turned up in the investigation by Simeoni's team: Those before 1992 are too old to warrant prosecution.

Plus, under one of the unusual aspects of France's legal system, the Paris prosecutor, Jean-Claude Marin, will actually argue against a conviction. He argues there's not enough evidence. It's up to the judges to determine now whether there is.

Additionally, while not acknowledging wrongdoing, Chirac and his party struck a deal last year with City Hall — now run by the opposition Socialists — to pay back an $2.2 million calculated to be the amount paid in the jobs in question. As a result, the city won't be among Chirac's accusers in court.

For years, investigating magistrates had sought to prosecute Chirac, who hid behind his presidential immunity during his term from 1995 to 2007.

Chirac has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, insisting that France had no judicial rules laying out a framework for party financing at the time, and that the expenses were approved by the city council.

Chirac's five-lawyer legal team has grown increasingly silent about the case as the trial nears, and Chirac wants to keep his comments for the court hearings, scheduled to run through April 8.

His health has been in question. In January, Chirac told a French TV station he was doing "fine" and denied he was too feeble to stand trial, and his wife denied a report saying he might have Alzheimer's disease as "a lie." Chirac was hospitalized for a week in 2005 for a vascular problem that has never been fully explained.

He is also said to not be letting on much about his state of mind ahead of the proceedings. Chirac spokeswoman Benedicte Brissart told The Associated Press only that he views the trial as "an ordeal."

Jean-Francois Probst, who was a high-ranking Paris City Hall official under Chirac in the 1980s and author of two books on him, said he thought the ex-president was "relatively calm" going into the proceedings.

"He'll explain what he believes in his conscience is the truth," he told the AP. "But it's never fun to go to trial — he's never been there in his life."