PARIS (AFP) – Jacques Chirac will be the first former French president to be tried for corruption, officials said on Friday, after charges from his years as mayor of Paris returned to taint the twilight of his long career.
Chirac stands accused of giving political allies lucrative bogus jobs as city hall "ghost workers" and his trial will be the latest in a series to expose graft and dirty tricks at the highest levels of state.
Judicial officials confirmed to AFP that Chirac would face trial on charges of "abuse of trust" and "misuse of public funds".
A statement from the office of the 76-year-old Gaullist – who ranks as France’s most popular politician two-and-half years after he left office – said he was "calm and determined" to prove his innocence.
Before serving as president, Chirac was mayor of Paris from 1977 to 1995, and is accused of using the city payroll to provide salaries for aides who were in reality working for his right-wing political party.
As head of state between 1995 and 2007 he enjoyed immunity from prosecution, but since stepping down he has joined several of his allies and former aides in being placed under formal judicial investigation.
On Friday, in a move to pre-empt an official announcement, Chirac’s office itself confirmed that Judge Xaviere Simeoni had decided – against the advice of prosecutors – to order him to stand trial.
Chirac is on holiday in Morocco and has yet to comment personally.
After examining the reports of investigating magistrates, she decided that there was evidence of wrongdoing in the case of 21 contracts awarded by the mayor’s office. Nine more officials also face charges.
State prosecutors, who have argued against the need for prosecution, have five days to decide whether they will appeal the judge’s decision.
Chirac has been dodging investigators for much of his career and his name has long been linked to a string of notorious cases, including two explosive trials that have dominated headlines in recent weeks.
His former prime minister Dominique de Villepin is awaiting a verdict in the Clearstream case, in which he was accused of smearing Chirac’s future successor as president, Nicolas Sarkozy, with false graft allegations.
Chirac was not called to testify in the trial, but was accused by lawyers in court of having ordered his ally Villepin to frame Sarkozy.
This week, judges convicted several high-profile figures from the Chirac era for running a corrupt network smuggling arms to Angola and passing out millions of dollars in kickbacks among the Parisian elite.
Former interior minister Charles Pasqua, who was convicted in the case and is to appeal a one year prison sentence, has insisted publicly that Chirac was fully aware of the illegal trade.
Chirac has also been linked to several cases that never led to charges, including allegations of kickbacks to his party on public works contracts and the registration of fake voters in two Paris districts.
His expenses claims as mayor of Paris also came under scrutiny because of the allegedly huge sums he and his wife Bernadette spent on entertaining.
The charges are a severe blow to a statesman who left office under a cloud of suspicion but has lately been enjoying a surge in popularity.
An Ifop poll for Paris-Match found this month he was France’s most popular politician, with a 76 percent approval rating, far head of his hyperactive successor Sarkozy on only 44.
"Jacques Chirac is a personality whom the French love very much. It’s a shame that, at the end of his personal career, he be put on trial," said Dominique Paille, spokesman for Sarkozy’s ruling UMP.
The opposition Socialist Party said the decision to pursue Chirac said the case showed the importance of France’s independent investigating magistrates, an institution which Sarkozy plans to abolish.
These magistrates opened an inquiry into Chirac’s running of city hall in 1999 after receiving a complaint alleging widespread abuses, including graft, illegal party financing and destruction of evidence.
Chirac was nevertheless re-elected for a second presidential term in 2002 with a massive 82 percent of the vote after facing far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in a second round run-off.
Many left-wing voters switched to his camp under the slogan "better a crook than a fascist", although Chirac continued to deny all accusations.