France's Chirac ordered to face embezzlement trial

Former French president Jacques Chirac has been ordered to stand trial on embezzlement charges dating back to his time as mayor of Paris, an unprecedented move against a former French head of state.

Magistrate Xaviere Simeoni made the order over allegations that the Paris City Hall awarded contracts for non-existent jobs as favors to people who were politically useful to Chirac.

Chirac's office said on Friday that he and nine others had been ordered to stand trial over 21 contracts.

"President Chirac ... is confident, and determined to establish before a tribunal that none of the jobs that remain under discussion were non-existent jobs," a statement said.

Chirac, 76, who was mayor from 1977 until 1995, when he was elected president, is not certain to go on trial, as Paris public prosecutor Jean-Claude Marin had previously said there was no case against him.

Marin is likely to appeal the decision by Simeoni, whose role is to investigate cases and decide whether suspects should face trial. If Marin contests Simeoni's instructions, an appeals court will take the final decision in another year or so.

Chirac, a conservative, enjoyed constitutional immunity during his 12 years as president, only to be hit by a flurry of legal problems after he stepped down in 2007.

No former French head of state has been prosecuted for corruption, and a trial would be a public humiliation for a man who stood at the heart of French politics for four decades.


Chirac's legal woes have drawn mixed reactions from the French political class. Both friends and foes seem torn between embarrassment at old business being dredged up and a need to uphold the principle that no one is above the law.

"These are old stories and, today, Jacques Chirac probably has lots of things on his conscience but at the same time he has given a lot to the country," said Segolene Royal, ex-candidate for president from the Socialist Party, which opposes Chirac.

"He deserves to be left alone, but justice must be the same for everyone ... Even if he deserves this, it's not good for France's image," she said on Europe 1 radio.

In retirement, Chirac has gained in popularity and has devoted his time to writing his memoirs and launching a charitable foundation.

Although he has so far avoided direct involvement in any trial, a number of his former allies and associates have been convicted on corruption charges, leaving a bitter aftertaste of what were known as "the Chirac years."

His former deputy who succeeded him as mayor, Jean Tiberi, was found guilty in May of electoral fraud dating back to the 1990s. He received a 10-month suspended jail sentence and cannot run for public office for three years.

The nine others charged in the same case as Chirac include two of his former chiefs of staff, Michel Roussin and Remy Chardon, as well as seven beneficiaries of the contracts for alleged non-existent jobs.

They include Jean de Gaulle, grandson of wartime hero and president Charles de Gaulle, as well as Marc Blondel, a former head of the Force Ouvriere labor union, and Francois Debre, brother of the head of France's constitutional court.

(Published by Reuters - October 30, 2009)

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