French judge delays Jacques Chirac trial

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The trial of former President Jacques Chirac on corruption charges was suspended for at least three months today – raising doubts about whether the case will ever come to court.

A constitutional objection, raised by the lawyer for one of Mr Chirac’s co-defendants, forced the judge to adjourn the long-awaited trial until at least June.

Although the Chirac defence team denied all responsibility, anti-corruption campaigners insisted that the constitutional complaint was the latest manoeuvre in a lengthy rearguard action by the former president’s entourage to spare him the humiliation of a trial.

Depending on the progress of the disputed point through the appeal court and France’s equivalent of the Supreme Court, the trial could be delayed for at least six months. Mr Chirac’s health, and especially his mental clarity and memory, are already in doubt. Anti-corruption campaigners and the French media speculated yesterday that the ex-president, 78, might never face the 28 charges of misusing taxpayers’ money to fund his political career.

Mr Chirac did not appear in person for either of the two days of procedural and constitutional wrangling this week. Had he done so he would have been the first French former head of state to appear as a defendant in court since Field Marshall Phillipe Petain was convicted of treason in 1945.

The accusations go back to Mr Chirac’s period as mayor of Paris from 1977-95. They have taken so long to reach trial, partly because Mr Chirac claimed presidential immunity while he was in the Elysee Palace from 1995 to 2007.

He is accused, following two separate investigations, of putting 28 people on the town hall pay-roll who had nothing whatever to do with the city of Paris. Some were cronies or political allies. Most allegedly worked, at the Paris taxpayers’ expense, for Mr Chirac ‘s “Gaullist” political party, the Rassemblement pour la Republique.

One of the alleged “fictitious employees” was a full-time official in Mr Chirac’s parliamentary constituency office in Correze, 300 miles from the French capital.

If convicted, the former president nominally faces prison but, in practice, would probably receive a suspended jail sentence and a fine.

The length of time it took for the charges to reach court were, with some irony, the cause of today’s further delay. A lawyer representing one of the nine other defendants – a former senior aide to Mr Chirac in Paris town hall – complained that one set of accusations, including alleged offences from the 1970s and 1980s, should have been barred by the three year “statute of limitations” on such charges guaranteed by the French constitution.

An unfair attempt had been made, the lawyer complained, to keep the charges alive by tagging them on to a separate set of later accusations, involving Mr Chirac alone.

The trial judge, Dominique Pauthe, announced today, after studying the protest overnight, that he was referring the question to the Cour de Cassation, France’s highest appeal court, If the Cour de Cassation accepts that there is a prima facie cause for complaint, it will ask the Conseil Constitutionnel, the final arbiter of constitutional questions, for a ruling.

The so-called “sages” of the constitutional council include Jacques Chirac. His lawyers promised that he would stay away from all the council's meetings until his own case had been decided.

Jerome Karsenti, lawyer for an anti-corruption pressure group, said that the adjournment amounted to “denial of justice.”.

“It is now obvious that there is one law for the powerful in this country and one for the rest,” he said. “Is it any surprise that Marine Le Pen (the leader of the far right National Front) is at 23 per cent and leading the opinion polls (for next year’s presidential election)?”