President's aides convicted on corruption charges

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At the end of a case in which both right- and leftwing political parties were revealed to have received illicit donations from companies tendering for public contracts, the Paris court handed down a four-year suspended prison sentence to Michel Roussin, who was M. Chirac's chief of staff when he was mayor of the capital. M. Chirac became head of state in 1995.

Yesterday's judgment in the case - in which prosecutors say €70m (£47m) changed hands - came as political infighting reached fever pitch on domestic issues and the government looked united only on wider subjects, such as anti-terrorism measures and bird-flu. M. Chirac, on his first foreign trip since suffering a minor stroke last month, is probably relieved to be at Hampton Court today, with the vicious French political scene dominated by who will take his job after the 2007 presidential elections.

M. Chirac did not appear in the corruption case, which was heard between March and July, as he enjoys presidential immunity from prosecution. But his shadow loomed large over the investigation into the kickbacks scheme, which operated in the Ile de France region between 1989 and 1995. Most of the 47 defendants were convicted, including two former ministers. Last year, in a trial which also tarnished the President, former prime minister Alain Juppé was convicted of misusing Paris city hall funds in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when M. Chirac was mayor.

At the same time, Marseille, the third city in France, was in the grip of the 23rd day of a strike against the privatisation of its metro and bus services.

Foremost among yesterday's blows was a report from the Senate - the French upper house - condemning the state's handling of the known health dangers of asbestos, which was only banned in France in 1997. The multi-party report found the government had been influenced by industry lobbyists promoting the use of the dangerous insulation material which was banned in many European countries in the 1980s. The Senate estimates that France faces a bill of between €27bn and €37bn in the next 20 years as asbestosis victims seek health care and damages.

Yesterday's cabinet meeting at the Elysée Palace rubberstamped a 15-point fast-track anti-terror Bill, including measures to introduce video-surveillance and the screening of e-mails and mobile phone calls. But the consensus over Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy's proposed Bill failed to mask the overall sense of decline dominating the French political scene.

In yesterday's judgment, M. Roussin, 66, a former minister, was fined €50,000. He had denied running the scheme but admitted he knew of the system by which politicians received payments amounting to 2 per cent of any building contract for a school in the Greater Paris region. M. Chirac's conservative RPR (Rally for the Republicans) party got most of the payments but some funds were given to a small right-wing party, the Parti Républicain, as well as to the opposition socialists.

The court sentenced the former employment minister and regional RPR leader Michel Giraud to four years, suspended, and fined him €80,000. The ex- sports minister, Guy Drut, received a 15-month suspended prison sentence and a €50,000 fine. Louise-Yvonne Casetta, said to have been the treasurer for the RPR's illegal funds, was given a 20-month suspended prison sentence and a €10,000 fine. Gérard Longuet, the former leader of the Parti Républicain, was cleared.

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