French fugitive returns to aid inquiry into political corruption

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A key fugitive from criminal investigations into corruption in President Jacques Chirac's political party said yesterday that he was returning to France after seven years on the run in the Caribbean.

Didier Schuller, wanted for questioning over the illegal financing of Mr Chirac's neo-Gaullist party, the RPR, through systematic kickbacks on council housing contracts, is expected to arrive in France today or tomorrow. His announcement provoked near-panic in the RPR, with presidential elections less than three months away and President Chirac already faltering in the opinion polls.

Mr Chirac's close ally, the former prime minister Alain Juppé, accused the Socialist party, and by implication Lionel Jospin, the Prime Minister, of somehow manipulating Mr Schuller's return. He said the Socialists and their allies in the press were trying to "attack people by stirring up trouble".

Mr Juppé was unable to explain how the Socialists might have been able to control a man who had been a senior RPR official and fixer before he fled France during the previous presidential election in 1995.

Mr Schuller's presence in the Dominican Republic was revealed two weeks ago by his son, who said he disapproved of his father's refusal to come home and help in the investigations. In an open letter to a Dominican newspaper yesterday, Mr Schuller said he was returning, among other things, to "rescue" his son from "European fascists", who were manipulating him.

Among the incidents for which Mr Schuller is wanted for questioning is an attempt to smear a judge investigating RPR finances. Mr Schuller is accused of offering a bribe to the judge's father-in-law. The judge, Eric Halphen, resigned from the judiciary last month, complaining of a two-speed judicial system in France, which he said prevented successful investigations of the powerful. Judge Halphen's attempts to interview Mr Chirac about public housing kickbacks were ruled constitutionally out of order last year.

In an interview with Le Monde last week, Mr Schuller said he had decided to return to France soon. He said he did not intend to damage President Chirac, but wished to show that his own activities as former head of the public housing agency in greater Paris had not been for his personal gain. They had been part of a "system organised by the RPR".

* French magistrates said yesterday they had concluded their inquiries into embezzlement of funds from the Elf oil company in the 1980s and 1990s and were likely to recommend 40 prosecutions.