Jacques Chirac's trial on corruption charges a first for modern French presidents

Gino Raymond [Professor of Modern French Studies, University of Bristol, UK]: "For most commentators in France, the decision by French state prosecutors that former president Jacques Chirac had no case to answer regarding his alleged financial improprieties during his time as mayor of Paris, left only the theoretical possibility that the examining magistrate handling the allegations, Xavière Simeoni, would nonetheless press ahead with the investigation. Her decision at the end of October 2009 to do just that has set in train a series of twists in the affair that, paradoxically, appear both extremely surprising and guided by fate. As a result of Simeoni's decision, during the course of 2010, and for the first time in the history of the French Fifth Republic, a former president will have to answer charges in court. More precisely, Chirac and at least nine other accused will have to answer charges that they participated in a system of rewarding their parties' financial backers and other allies with fictional but remunerated employment in the municipal administration of Paris, notably the 35 posts allegedly identified during the period 1983-1998.

Chirac's immediate response to the media was to assert that he remained "serene" faced with the prospect of such an appearance in court, even though a guilty verdict would potentially entail a custodial sentence and a fine substantially larger than his president's pension. For political insiders, however, Chirac has finally become victim to a fateful irony of his own making. Throughout his political career, Chirac has sought to dominate the fractious centre-right in France by trading on, and whenever necessary, by betraying loyalty. After his acrimonious resignation as President Valéry Giscard-d'Estaing's prime minister in 1976, Chirac successfully campaigned to become Mayor of Paris, transforming the city into his political power base, while at the same time taking over the Gaullist party in order to turn it into a vehicle for his presidential ambitions. Chirac's talent for exploiting, and when necessary sacrificing, the ambitions of his subordinates became most evident after his election to the presidency in 1995. After appearing to support his prime minister, Alain Juppé, during the winter of discontent in France in 1995/96, Chirac sacked him when someone had to take the blame for the economic pain as France prepared to drop the franc in favour of the euro as its national currency. Juppé's woes continued when in 2004 he was tried and found guilty of, inevitably, trading in fictional posts in the local government of Paris. As Chirac's second presidential mandate drew to a close, he manoeuvred Dominique de Villepin into the prime ministerial role in an effort to block the ascent of the man who had overtaken Chirac as the darling of the Gaullists, Nicolas Sarkozy. Within a year of Chirac's departure from office, de Villepin found himself under investigation for allegedly conspiring to smear Sarkozy. Now, bereft of his presidential power and privileges, it appears that Chirac may finally have to account for his actions, while the political parvenu he had despised, Sarkozy, sets about creating a quasi-monarchical court around himself at the Elysée palace.

Another irony attached to Xavière Simeoni's decision lies in the fact that if the legal reforms proposed by the Sarkozy administration pass into legislation, examining magistrates will no longer be able to act with the independence displayed by Mme Simeoni. Public opinion in France was much moved by the televised testimony of parents before a parliamentary commission in 2006, after their acquittal following charges of child abuse. The picture that emerged of the examining magistrate handling the case, an inexperienced and gullible young man called Fabrice Burgaud, showed to what extent a magistrate could abuse his or her independence, allowing a supposedly impartial representative of the law to pursue a ruthlessly biased investigation. The subsequent proposal to bring examining magistrates more closely under the supervision of state prosecutors, while on the face of things appearing to satisfy the public clamour for fairer justice, would also bring magistrates under closer political control by the justice ministry and make them less likely to embarrass the governing class in future.

Finally, the ripest irony attached to Chirac's prospective trial is to be found in the reaction of the now socialist-led municipality of Paris. A major figure in the French Socialist Party and mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, has suggested that the municipal authorities might withdraw their accusations of corruption against Chirac and that he has always respected the man and been on good terms with him. This apparent clemency may not be unrelated to the fact that the Delanoë administration is itself under threat of investigation for its award of certain building contracts in Paris. In spite of the quiet satisfaction in certain parts of the political establishment that Chirac may be brought to book as an individual, the revelation of systemic failure is not the outcome they would wish for."

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