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Legal net tightens in Paris cash scandals

The judicial net was threatening to close last night on two former "untouchables" of France's Gaullist elite: Xaviere Tiberi, wife of the mayor of Paris, and Yvonne Casetta, alleged to be the party's treasurer of illicit funds. Legal proceedings were instituted in both cases in the space of 24 hours despite the best efforts of the government and party hierarchy to pre-empt them.

The announcement came at midday yesterday that Mrs Tiberi had been placed under formal investigation in connection with 200,000Fr (pounds 23,000) she had received from a neighbouring local authority. The money was invoiced as payment for a report commissioned by the council on "developing relations with Francophone Africa", but the suspicion is that it was for a "fictitious" job of the kind commonly provided to the politically well-connected as expressions of goodwill.

Mrs Tiberi's report became the subject of widespread ribaldry in Paris after the satirical weekly, Le Canard Enchaine, obtained what it said was a copy and published excerpts, each priced with how much it had cost the ratepayer. The report itself was fewer than 40 pages long and, it was subsequently alleged, not even her own work: sections were traced to a published academic monograph.

The cynical laughter over Mrs Tiberi's authorial skills had scarcely died down when an even more absurd story started to do the rounds. The justice ministry, it was said - and later confirmed - had ordered the French embassy in Nepal to send a helicopter in search of a certain magistrate on a climbing holiday in the Himalayas.

This magistrate was in charge of the Tiberi file, and the urgency stemmed from the fact that he alone had the power to stop his deputy authorising the case to proceed. Unfortunately for Mrs Tiberi, the search party failed to find the magistrate. The fatal papers were forwarded.

Mrs Tiberi has insisted throughout that she did nothing wrong and that the payment was not just for the report but for a "job" she had with the Essonne local council. The mayor of Essonne, however, Xavier Dugoin, is a friend of the Tiberis and he was placed under investigation, too, yesterday for allegedly supplying "fictitious jobs".

The problem for the Gaullist party is less what Mrs Tiberi may or may not have done, than what she knows. Her husband was the right-hand man of President Jacques Chirac for many of the 20 years that he was mayor of Paris. He also worked closely with Alain Juppe, now Prime Minister, when he was city treasurer. The finances of the Paris town hall are implicated in a cluster of corruption investigations, and Mrs Tiberi, it is said, has threatened to tell all if her case comes to court.

Compromising information about the Gaullist Party and its leading politicians is also the weapon of Yvonne Casetta, who has spent 24 hours in a Paris jail awaiting questioning. Stories abound of how she received and transported vast sums in used notes that were destined for party coffers - most of the money being kickbacks from contractors and big business.