Madame Chirac faces inquiry into 'free flights'

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The Independent Online

A French lawyer has accused President Jacques Chirac of impeding criminal investigations into the alleged illegal use of private jets by his wife, Bernadette.

Maître Jean-Paul Baduel formally proposed a parliamentary commission of inquiry into the activities of the Euralair charter and air taxi company, which collapsed two years ago with more than€30m (£20.6m) of debts.

Documents seized by investigators suggest that Mme Chirac took six private flights with the company in 1998-99 but was never asked to pay the bills, which totalled €41,000. Euralair's founder and president, Alexandre Couvelaire, is a friend of the Chirac family. At the time of Mme Chirac's flights, his company was already in financial difficulties and "under observation" by a commercial court.

Under French law, the undeclared donation or receipt of a public company's resources can be regarded as embezzlement.

France's first lady is a local councillor in the département of Corrèze, in south-west France, where the Chiracs have a chateau. She took the private flights from Paris to Corrèze, mostly on council business, including an appearance at the making of the "biggest mushroom omelette in the world" in Brive in July 1998.

M. Baduel, who represents former employees of the company, said yesterday that a parliamentary commission of inquiry was the only way to get to the bottom of the affair. The parquet, or public prosecutor's office, in Paris has delayed a decision for more than a year on whether to appoint an independent examining magistrate to investigate Euralair's collapse.

M. Baduel said: "We have here a very serious conflict of interest. The government gives orders to the parquet and someone very close to the government is under suspicion."

Earlier this month, police from the Paris fraud squad searched the files on Mme Chirac's travel records at the headquarters of the Corrèze département and at the offices of the Renseignements Généraux, one of the French equivalents of MI5.