History made as Chirac is told to stand trial

Former head of state accused of embezzling taxpayers' money to put political allies in non-existent posts

Jacques Chirac, the former French president, was ordered to stand trial for alleged corruption while he was mayor of Paris. He is accused of embezzling taxpayers' money to pay more than 20 political cronies for posts that turned out to be non-existent. Mr Chirac now becomes the first former head of state in French history to be put on trial.

In an unprecedented move, an investigating magistrate ruled he should answer charges in court of using the city payroll to fund "ghost workers" who were, in reality working to promote his right-wing political party or in some cases doing nothing at all.

Mr Chirac, who has been under investigation for the past decade for allegedly abusing his position as mayor, enjoyed immunity from prosecution from 1995 to 2007 in his role as head of state. The left-wing daily newspaper Libération accused Mr Chirac, who was mayor of Paris from 1977 to 1995, of distributing fictitious jobs "like baguettes at the bakery".

A spokesperson for Mr Chirac said yesterday that he was "calm" and "determined to prove" his innocence. Investigating magistrate Judge Xavière Simeoni threw out charges of forgery of government documents but Mr Chirac, along with nine former aides, still faces charges relating to the alleged fake jobs.

Investigators looked at 481 supposedly sham contracts and the judge laid charges relating to 21 of them.

The scandal will further undermine French trust in politicians, coming just weeks after the Clearstream trial which tarnished France's political elite by pitting Dominique de Villepin, the former prime minister, against President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Dominique Paille, spokesman for the Union for a Popular Movement, the ruling centre-right party created by Mr Chirac, said: "Jacques Chirac is a personality whom the French love very much. It's a shame that, at the end of his personal career, he be put on trial." Mr Paille told Radio France Info: "It is doubtless a painful test for a president, and not necessarily very good for France's image."

While Mr Chirac, now 76, has been accused of a series of corruption allegations during his career, this is the first time legal action has been taken against him, and his popularity has risen since he left office in 2007. This month he was named France's most popular politician, with a 76 per cent approval rating, according to an Ifop poll for Paris-Match magazine.

This compares with 44 per cent for President Sarkozy, suggesting that many French voters look nostalgically on his traditional approach to public life.

Since leaving office he has devoted his time to launching a charitable foundation and writing his memoirs, the first volume of which will be published next month.

The inquiry intohis running of the Paris town hall opened in 1999, after magistrates received a complaint alleging widespread misuse of public funds, illegal party financing and destruction of evidence.

This did not prevent him from winning a second term in office in 2002. That year, his former chief of staff was placed under formal investigation amid allegations that fake contracts signed by Mr Chirac and his successor as mayor, Jean Tibéri, cost the city €4.5m. After stepping down in 2007, Mr Chirac was placed under formal investigation on several counts.

State prosecutors could appeal against the investigating magistrate's decision, forcing the Paris Appeal Court to make a final ruling on whether to try Mr Chirac.

Benefits system: Cronyism at the top

Jacques Chirac's spell as Mayor of Paris was a very good time to be sleeping with, married to, or simply well connected with somebody on an inside track with his Rassemblement pour la République (Gaullist) party. During the period from 1982 and 1996 nearly 700 people benefited from the largesse of the City Hall.

Among those who ended up on the municipal payroll were a mountaineer, a professional cyclist, a fencing star and the daughters, wives and nieces of several leading French politicians. The city funded these positions through an elaborate web of illicit kickbacks worth millions of euros from developers, building contractors and other big businesses.

Some 21 allegedly fraudulent job contracts have come back to haunt the popular former leader, making Mr Chirac potentially, the first ex-French head of state in modern times to endure the humiliation of having to defend himself in court.

But this is not the first case linking Mr Chirac to allegations of cronyism and sleaze. Alain Juppé (left), a former Prime Minister was convicted in 2004 for corruption during his time as a mayoral deputy to Mr Chirac. He was given a suspended jail term but many think Juppé shouldered the blame for his boss.

Dominique de Villepin (below), another former Prime Minister who served during Chirac's time in the Elysée, is awaiting a verdict on charges of trying to smear Nicolas Sarkozy in the so-called Clearstream scandal. Mr Chirac was accused by lawyers in court of ordering Villepin to frame the President.

There was a ghost in the room too during the conviction this week of the former interior minister Charles Pasqua, in the so-called Angolagate arms trade scandal. Pasqua claims the man who knew all about the deals was ... Jacques Chirac.

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