French court to hold Chirac trial in his absence

A French court decided on Monday to proceed with the trial of former president Jacques Chirac for misuse of public funds without him being present, after a neurologist found that his memory was too frail.

Chirac, president from 1995 to 2007 and fondly regarded by many in France, is accused of embezzling public money to fund his political party via phantom jobs at Paris Town Hall during his long stint as mayor between 1977 and 1995.

The 78-year-old politician was absent from Monday's procedural hearing after his lawyers submitted a medical assessment saying he was unfit to be questioned about events so far in the past.

"Mr. Chirac will not be ordered to appear in person and as a result he shall be tried in his absence, represented by his lawyers," the court said in a statement.

Chirac's wife Bernadette says he has memory problems probably linked to a small stroke he suffered several years ago.

The long-awaited trial, scheduled to run until September 23, marks the first time since World War Two that a former French head of state has been tried in court on criminal charges.

The allegations have hung over Chirac since he lost his presidential immunity in 2007. After years of delays and legal obstacles, a final hurdle was lifted in June and the trial was due to go ahead even though Chirac and the ruling conservative UMP party had offered to pay money to settle the case.

Cross-party sympathy

The ruling conservative UMP party, centrists and opposition leftists have reacted sympathetically to the medical concerns.

"The trial must take place but his presence is not essential," Patrick Devedjian, a UMP politician and former lawyer for Chirac, told Europe 1 radio earlier on Monday.

"Jacques Chirac has health problems. It's a fact. He could not go through the 13 hearings," Dominique de Villepin, a prime minister under Chirac, told Sunday's Journal du Dimanche weekly paper. "(The trial) will be useful even without his presence."

Chirac, who has denied the accusations and had repeatedly said he wanted to stand trial, appeared in good spirits over the summer, photographed sipping a pina colada cocktail in the resort of St. Tropez.

But French media have been reporting a deterioration in his responsiveness and verbal agility -- and most notable an unawareness of his inability to recall facts.

"If he is not present, there will be enough testimony for us to know what happened without needing to inflict this difficulty upon Jacques Chirac," Francois Hollande, the Socialist favourite for the 2012 presidential election, said at the weekend.

Chirac is accused of misuse of public funds, abuse of trust and incurring illegal gains, in events dating back to between 1992 and 1995 and linked to 28 allegedly phantom town hall jobs.

On trial with nine co-defendants, he could face up to 10 years in prison and a 150,000 euro (131,291 pounds) fine if found guilty, but would more likely be handed a suspended sentence.

Chirac had not been expected to appear in person for the entire procedure but was due to attend key hearings.

"It makes me uncomfortable to see a president who has spent his life serving France in the dock so long after the event," Henri Guaino, an advisor to president Nicolas Sarkozy, told i>Tele at the weekend.

(Published by Reuters - September 5, 2011)

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