In France, a Vintage Chirac Scandal is Uncorked

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Wonder why French politicians are falling over one another these days to distance themselves from politics as usual? Look no further than the 16th chamber at the Palace of Justice in Paris, where 15 politicians and ex-officials went on trial this week for electoral fraud in a case that has been batted around a rickety French justice system for a full 17 years.

The long vintage gives the case its special piquancy, because the defendants were all cogs in the old Paris political machine of Jacques Chirac, who served 18 years as mayor of Paris before being elected President of France in 1995. And the accused are only the latest in a string of alleged bagmen, vote-riggers and ward-heelers charged with wrongdoing during Chirac's city hall tenure — two of Chirac's closest aides are among those already convicted in connection with kickback and party financing charges. As President, Chirac enjoys immunity from prosecution, but new elections are set for May, and there is scant chance that Chirac will run again, let alone win. That was why the opposition howled in protest when the government on Wednesday named a close legal advisor to Chirac, Laurent Le Mesle, as chief prosecutor of Paris. The new job will give Le Mesle a key role in deciding whether charges are ever brought against Chirac once he reverts to being a regular citizen.

Allegations of political cynicism have been known to stir as much admiration as horror in France, but French tolerance for such behavior may be reaching its limit. This summer, President Chirac issued a presidential pardon to Guy Drut, a former Olympic hurdler who had been convicted for taking a fictitious job in Mayor Chirac's municipal administration. But when the government then claimed that thus pardoned, Drut should be able to assume a spot on the ethics committee of the International Olympic Committee, public reaction was swift and severe, and the government backed off.

The current trial in Paris is no less politically sensitive, even if it involves events that occurred almost a generation ago. After his defeat in 1988 presidential elections, Jacques Chirac bounced back into the political fray by winning a so-called "grand slam" in the Paris mayoral elections the next year. His political allies triumphed in every one of the city's 20 districts, but it was a close thing: his sub-mayor in the 3rd arrondissement, Jacques Dominati, squeaked through with a margin of just 20 votes. Opponents charged that Dominati and his allies, including his sons Laurent and Philippe — now respectively a city councillor and a senator — had won only after enriching the electoral rolls with the names of 327 non-residents. Dominati, denying any wrongdoing, has claimed that adding the names of friends and relatives was "a republican custom." So, he might have argued, was the promise from Chirac this summer that he'd be named ambassador to Honduras — rich in bananas but far from French courtrooms. But according to a report in the daily Le Monde, the Drut case made that offer seem too imprudent.

Still, it's not as if there are no second acts in French politics. Alain Juppé, the former prime minister and close Chirac ally convicted in 2004 for his role in a scheme to put party workers on the Paris city payroll, is proving as much. After a forced vacation from civic life, much of it spent teaching politics in Quebec, Juppé is back in play this autumn. Last month party colleagues in his power base of Bordeaux resigned en masse from the city council, forcing new elections. Juppé is expected to walk to victory next month as the mayor of Bordeaux, the post he held before his temporary fall from grace.