JACQUES Chirac has became the first former French president to go on trial as a court heard charges that he embezzled public funds while he was mayor of Paris in the 1990s.
The 78-year-old, one of France’s most popular political figures, did not attend the start of the trial that will examine whether he misused public money to pay people working for his party ahead of a successful election bid.
Presiding judge Dominique Pauthe adjourned Monday’s hearing after a few hours, saying it would resume on Tuesday when he would rule on a constitutional challenge in the case, which if successful could delay the trial by several months.
Chirac, who was Paris mayor from 1977 to 1995, enjoyed immunity from prosecution as president from 1995 to 2007, but the case, which has already seen Foreign Minister Alain Juppe convicted, has finally caught up with him.
The judge read out the charges, including embezzlement and breach of trust, to a packed court in central Paris. Proceedings were held up for several minutes as lawyers and civil plaintiffs squabbled over seats.
The judge later ordered police to throw two civil plaintiffs out of the court for wasting his time by standing up to make rambling accusations that he said were not relevant to the case.
Chirac, best known internationally for his opposition to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, has denied any knowledge of corrupt payments and his lawyers accuse magistrates of harbouring a political agenda.
He has been linked to a series of corruption scandals but never convicted. If found guilty this time, he faces up to 10 years in jail and a fine of euros 150,000 ($207,000).
The hearings are the result of the merging of two separate cases – one begun by magistrates in the Paris suburb of Nanterre in 1995, and another in the capital itself dating to 1998.
The case involves seven alleged ghost jobs for which Chirac is charged with conflict of interest and 21 other jobs 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 were used to prepare for the 1995 presidential election, which he went on to win, insisting they were all legitimate posts in the service of Paris.
Jean-Yves Le Borgne, a lawyer representing one of Chirac’s co-defendants, asked the judge to refer to France’s constitutional court on whether some of the charges in the Paris case were still admissible since they date back to the early 1990s.
“The statue of limitations is central to this affair,” he told the court, insisting the move was not a ploy “to buy time and avoid the trial.”
State prosecutors threw their weight behind Borgne’s move. They had already called for the case to be dismissed, raising the likelihood that Chirac will avoid conviction.
If the judge agrees to submit the question for a constitutional ruling, the process could delay the trial for months.
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.
“Some people do not want a former president to go on trial. We can see very well the political agendas that are behind” the bids to postpone it, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs, Jerome Karsenti, told reporters outside the court.
Pauthe said the hearings would resume on Tuesday, when he would rule on the request.
Chirac’s lawyer Georges Kiejman said Chirac “will probably come on Wednesday” to court regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s ruling.