|Jacques Chirac has denied any knowledge of corrupt payments used to fund his political party in the 1990s [Reuters]
A Paris judge has suspended the long-awaited corruption trial of Jacques Chirac, France's former president, after a constitutional challenge by a co-defendant.
Dominique Pauthe, the presiding judge, said on Tuesday that he was delaying hearings until around June 20 to allow the Court of Cassation, France's highest court, to consider whether certain charges are still admissable.
Jean-Yves La Borgne, a lawyer working for Chirac's former chief of staff Remy Chardon, said on Monday that under the consitution the accusations in the former case can no longer be heard since they date back too far in time.
Chirac had faced 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.
In particular the case focuses on an alleged 28 jobs paid for by Chirac's Paris City Hall from 1992 to 1995, for work that instead benefited his RPR political party and its allies.
The 78-year-old statesman, who is still one of France's most popular politicians, has denied any knowledge of corrupt payments and his lawyers have accused prosecutors of harbouring a political agenda.
The trial, which began on Monday after 11 years of legal wrangling, expected to see a former head of state in the docks for the first time since Marshal Philippe Petain, who led France's government during Nazi occupation.
"Jacques Chirac is once again going to escape the justice system," Jerome Karsenti, lawyer for an anti-corruption association, said on Tuesday.
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.