Another Delay to Chirac's Day in Court

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Philippe Wojazer / Reuters

Former French President Jacques Chirac leaves his office in Paris, March 7, 2011, a few hours before the start of his corruption trial in Paris, which will be the first time a former head of state has been called on to appear before the courts in France.

In September 2000, then-French President Jacques Chirac dismissed the swirling tide of corruption accusations against him as not only unfounded, but so improbably fanciful he waved them off as "abracadabrantesque." Chroniclers of the attempt to try the 78-year-old Chirac on those allegations will doubtless use similarly magical language to describe the ex-president's fortune in avoiding his day in court. The sense that Chirac must be charmed increased further on Tuesday after a Paris criminal tribunal ruled to suspend the corruption proceedings that had begun only the previous day, when a co-defendant petitioned for a portion of the case to bereviewed as legally valid before continuing further.

The decision prolongs the epic struggle between Chirac and the French legal system. It also leaves his corruption trial that began March 7 hanging until a cassation court examines how the expiration of the statute of limitations in one part of the case affects the rest of it. Awaiting that ruling, judges decided to suspend proceedings in both halves of the dossier until sometime in mid-June. That brought the first criminal trial of a French leader since the World War II era to a screeching halt, and makes some observers wonder if Chirac might yet find a way to entirely avoid facing judges on accusations that have dogged him for nearly 20 years — and for which one of his closest political allies has already been convicted. But despite his apparently Houdini-esque success in keeping out of court thus far, it seems almost certain Chirac will finally face magistrates in the coming months.

The trial centers on allegations that, during his time as mayor of Paris in the 1990s, Chirac embezzled and otherwise abused public funds. Chirac held that position for 18 years, and used it — along with his role as leader of the French right — to mount successive presidential bids leading up to his ultimately successful 1995 Elysée run. The case against him maintains that while he was master of city hall, he hired members of his Rally for the Republic party (RPR, which has since morphed into the now-ruling rightist Union for a Popular Majority, or UMP) for fictional municipal jobs that paid out real salaries. In other words, his accusers charge, Chirac's scheme used public money to pay people who were working for the RPR — and, more broadly, Chirac's own political and presidential ambitions. Chirac has acknowledged that party members and officials were hired by the city under his watch, something that isn't illegal under French law. But he has steadfastly denied the corruption charges leveled at him.

But Chirac's enduring ability to side-step the legal examination of those accusations has led many to wonder why a self-declared innocent man is so determined to stay out of court. Up until the very moment his second term ended in 2007, Chirac cited presidential immunity in refusing to cooperate with investigators. Once out of office, his lawyers used legal maneuvers to delay answering questions for as long as possible. Chirac also seemed to get help from a French political elite apparently disinclined to see one of its own face trial. The politically appointed Paris prosecutor, for example, decided there was insufficient evidence in one legal inquiry against Chirac to prosecute in court — a decision later over-ruled by an independent magistrate who sent it to trial on corruption charges. And last year, Socialist politicians who now rule Paris agreed to drop their civil case against Chirac when he and the UMP agreed to reimburse nearly $3 million in public funds purportedly lost to the scheme.

But that failed to dissuade justice authorities, who last year decided to group two different investigations involving 28 allegedly bogus jobs into the single trial that began Monday. They've been joined by anti-corruption groups who filed civil suits against Chirac — who did not appear in court for the trial's opening. Almost immediately, however, a co-defendant's lawyer asked whether expired statutes of limitations in one part of the case didn't undermine the constitutionality of trying both halves of the case together — a question judges decided merited further examination, and ordered the proceedings suspended. Despite the (temporary) reprieve, Chirac was apparently chagrined by the decision.

"I want to underline that neither [Jacques] Chirac nor his lawyers had anything to do with this motion, and never sought for proceedings to be delayed," Chirac attorney Georges Kiejman told LCI television after Tuesday's suspension. "President Chirac will not be pleased about this because it is his wish to testify before the tribunal and establish his innocence."

If so, it's a shared desire. Though Chirac remains one of France's best-loved politicians, 77% of poll respondents said on the eve of the trial that they want to see him judged in the case. That will require some patience, but in a few months Chirac should finally appear in court. Unless the trial is delayed again — as if by magic.