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October 31, 2009

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Chirac on block for old Paris charges

FORMER French President Jacques Chirac has been ordered to stand trial in an alleged corruption scandal dating back to his time as Paris mayor.

It's a case that caught up with him in retirement once he lost the judicial immunity of France's highest office.

A magistrate ordered Chirac, whose 12-year presidency ended in 2007, to stand trial on charges of embezzlement and breach of trust, a judicial official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the case is ongoing.

Nine others also were sent to trial, including a relative of former President Charles de Gaulle.

The judge's decision yesterday surprised many.

The prosecutor's office had requested the case be dropped, saying the statute of limitations had expired on many of the events in question.

A prosecutor could still appeal, but if the case goes forward, it will mark the first time a former leader of modern France has been forced to defend himself in court.

Already, the mere fact of being investigated has been a humiliating coda to the 76-year-old Chirac's four-decade political career.

Suspicions of corruption and nepotism, mostly dating from Chirac's 1977-95 tenure as Paris mayor, dogged his presidency.

Xaviere Simeoni, the investigating magistrate who ordered Chirac to stand trial, has been probing whether people in his circle were given sham jobs as advisers and paid by Paris City Hall, even though they weren't working for it.

Chirac's office said in a statement that he was "serene and determined to prove in court that none of the jobs still being debated were fake."

The statement also said that Chirac is not above the law and is required to "answer to the justice system like everyone else."

If sent to trial and convicted, Chirac would risk up to 10 years in prison, a 150,000 euro (US$221,800) fine and disqualification from public office for 10 years.

Chirac already has retired from politics and heads a foundation devoted to helping the developing world.

Throughout his presidency, Chirac used his presidential immunity to keep investigators at arm's length.

Meanwhile, judges closed in on those in his circle - his former Prime Minister Alain Juppe was convicted of party financing irregularities in 2004.


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