French election campaign haunted by scandals past

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The Independent Online

With nine weeks to go, the French presidential election is shaping up to be one of the most unpleasant of modern times.

The day after President Jacques Chirac announced he would stand again, an obscure Socialist former minister was arrested by dozens of police officers for questioning in a fraud inquiry going back two years.

Left-leaning newspapers suggested yesterday that this was a manoeuvre orchestrated by Mr Chirac's centre-right supporters, to draw attention away from the financial scandals in the President's past. According to the satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchainé, officials of Mr Chirac's Rally for the Republic (RPR) party told journalists 24 hours in advance that the ex-minister, René Teulade, would be arrested.

Centre-right politicians said the arrest was nothing to do with them but proved Mr Chirac's assertion on television on Monday night that there were skeletons in several political cupboards. The implication was that all the cupboards were best kept shut.

Meanwhile, Mr Chirac's adamant denials, also live on television, of any connection with the latest scandal to strike his RPR party have proved to be, at best, misleading. He told viewers that he had never met Didier Schuller, a former RPR official arrested last week after returning from seven years in the Caribbean. The President said he "might have been in the same place as him, but I did not know him personally".

Since then French newspapers have unearthed two photographs of the men with each other. By far the most damaging, published in Le Monde, showed Mr Schuller and Mr Chirac grinning and shaking hands after a private meeting in 1994, in Mr Chirac's office at the Paris town hall.

The following year, Mr Schuller fled after being implicated in the systematic creaming of bribes from contractors seeking work on council flats in an RPR-controlled area of the western suburbs of Paris.

Le Canard Enchainéreported yesterday that an investigating magistrate had been given a 434-page report linking Mr Schuller's activities to a wider system of kickbacks on public contracts in the Paris area operated by Mr Chirac's party while he was Mayor of Paris, from 1977 to 1995.

Yesterday, Chirac supporters lashed out at Le Monde, a highly respected centre-left paper, for publishing the photograph. One parliamentarian, Henri Plagnol, accused the newspaper of being part of a left-wing strategy to throw dirt at Mr Chirac. "If we continue to pollute the campaign by encouraging the sewers of the past to overflow, we will deprive the French people of the debate on real issues that they seek and weaken the standing of all politicians in France," he said.

As for the arrest of Mr Teulade, the circumstances are mysterious. He is suspected of paying himself too much money when in charge of a civil service pension fund. The investigation seemed to be going nowhere until it burst into life this week. But how could the RPR have orchestrated his arrest when the government is run by the Socialist-led coalition of Lionel Jospin, widely expected to be Mr Chirac's presidential rival?