French Court Suspends Chirac Graft Trial

A French court Tuesday suspended the trial of former president Jacques Chirac on charges of embezzling public funds as mayor of Paris in the 1990s, following a constitutional challenge.

Chirac, 78, the first former French president ever to go before a judge, is accused of using the money to pay people working for his party ahead of a successful election bid in 1995.

Presiding judge Dominique Pauthe said he was suspending the hearings so that constitutional authorities can examine whether certain charges are still admissible despite dating back nearly two decades.

Chirac is the first French ex-head of state to face criminal charges since the leader of the collaborationist wartime regime, Marshal Philippe Petain, was convicted of treason after World War II.

Chirac, one of France's most popular political figures best known abroad for opposing the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, has denied knowledge of corrupt payments.

Paris mayor from 1977 to 1995, he has been linked to a series of corruption scandals but never convicted. He had immunity from prosecution as president from 1995 to 2007.

If found guilty this time, Chirac faces up to 10 years in jail and a fine of 150,000 euros ($210,000) on charges including embezzlement and breach of trust.

Current Foreign Minister Alain Juppe was convicted in the case in 2004.

Chirac did not attend the first hearings in the case on Monday and Tuesday.

The current trial is the result of the merging of two separate cases -- one begun by magistrates in the Paris suburb of Nanterre in 1995, and another in Paris itself launched in 1998.

The judge agreed to a call by a lawyer for one of Chirac's co-defendants that the constitutional court be consulted to rule whether charges in the latter case were still admissible -- a process that may take several months.

He proposed that hearings in both cases be rescheduled for around June 20 pending a constitutional ruling.

The case involves seven alleged ghost jobs for which Chirac is charged with conflict of interest and 21 other jobs -- the "Paris" branch of the affair -- for which he is accused of embezzlement and abuse of trust.

Nine other people are on trial alongside Chirac, accused either of having ghost jobs or benefiting from those of town hall employees.

Chirac denies that the people employed in the jobs worked on preparing for the 1995 presidential election, which he went on to win, insisting they were all legitimate posts in the service of Paris.

State prosecutors have called for the case to be dismissed, raising the likelihood that Chirac will avoid conviction.

Paris city hall last year dropped its civil charges against Chirac in return for a payment of more than 2.2 million euros, from him and the right-wing UMP party.

Chirac paid more than half a million euros of this from his own pocket but did not acknowledge any wrongdoing.

Anti-corruption campaigners are still bringing separate civil charges.

Source: Agence France Presse

Copyright © 2012 All Rights Reserved.