Left votes to allow trial of president

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France's ruling Socialists passed a Bill yesterday to curb the immunity of future heads of state after dead-end attempts by magistrates to question President Jacques Chirac in relation to sleaze inquiries.

The Bill, hurriedly drafted by the government last week after a group within the Socialist Party launched a far more radical petition to impeach Mr Chirac, was swiftly adopted by the National Assembly despite accusations of cynical posturing from Mr Chirac's allies.

The law would not apply until after next year's elections, but is unlikely to reach the statute book because of opposition from Mr Chirac's allies, who are expected to block the Bill in the conservative- dominated Senate.

However, it gives the left the appearance of trying to clean up French politics by proposing constitutional changes to make the President answerable to the justice system, at least for offences unrelated to his job.

It also allows the Socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, to take the moral high ground less than a year before an election in which he is expected to challenge Mr Chirac.

The current law protects sitting presidents from pursuit for all but high treason, scuppering attempts by magistrates to question Mr Chirac on charges of fraud dating back to his 18 years as Paris Mayor.

One magistrate investigating allegations that Mr Chirac's RPR party took bribes from building firms in return for contracts said in a report in April that he had gathered "plausible evidence" implicating Mr Chirac. Mr Chirac denies all accusations. (Reuters)