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Chirac corruption trial begins
Long-awaited corruption trial of former French president begins, but faces delays after a defence appeal.
Last Modified: 07 Mar 2011 16:25 GMT

An appeal from a co-defendant has delayed the start of the long-awaited trial of Jacques Chirac, the former French president.

The French statesman faces a month in court on charges that he embezzled public money to fund his political party while he was mayor of Paris, the capital, between 1977 and 1995, when he became president.

The trial, which began on Monday after 11 years of legal wrangling, is the first time a former head of state has gone on trial in the country since Marshal Philippe Petain, who led France's government during Nazi occupation.

But a request by one of the nine co-defendants in the case to refer to France's constitutional court could lead to the case getting delayed for months.

Jean-Yves La Borgne, a lawyer working for Chirac's former chief of staff Remy Chardon, said under the consitution the accusations in the former case can no longer be heard since they date back too far in time.

"I consider it useful and necessary to lodge a constitutional query," Le Borgne told the court. "The notion of the statue of limitations is central to this affair."

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Dominque Pauthe adjourned the first day of hearings to consider the request. If it goes ahead, then France's constitutional court will need to decide whether the case can go ahead, slowing the process down by several months.

Chirac, 78, who is still one of France's most popular politicians, is due to make his first appearance in the dock on Tuesday.

He has denied any knowledge of corrupt payments and his lawyers have accused prosecutors of harbouring a political agenda.

If found guilty, he faces up to 10 years in jail and a fine of $210,000, but a prison term is seen as highly unlikely. He had enjoyed immunity from prosecution until 2007, when he left the presidency.

The nine co-defendants are accused of either having ghost jobs or benefitting from those of Paris town hall employees.

The case is going ahead even though the plaintiff, the city of Paris, withdrew its complaint after Chirac agreed to pay
$700,000 in compensation and France's ruling UMP party said it would pay a separate claim.

France's political circles are gearing up for next year's presidential race, but the fallout from this trial is unlikely to hit anyone other than Chirac and the nine other defendants, which includes a grandson of General Charles de Gaulle and a former leftwing labour union leader. 

But the trial looms as an embarrassing coda to Chirac's 12-year presidential term, potentially denting his legacy, recent philanthropic work and image as one of France's most popular personalities since he left office.

Source:
Al Jazeera
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