Jacques Chirac's Trial as a Symbol of the New France

Misuse of funds, conflict of interest, embezzlement: is the blind-eye era over?

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It appears that charges may have finally caught up to former French President Jacques Chirac, immune from prosecution while at his country's helm until 2007. He faces trial this week for some age-old corruption charges that he funneled public funds into his own political party while mayor of Paris in the 90's. The larger than life politician had seemed to represent a certain je ne sais quoi of the very idea of France. He was a food snob: "One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad," he said of the British. He was a good with ladies: "There have been women I have loved a lot, as discreetly as possible," he said, according to the BBC. He seemed impervious: on being informed of an apparent assassination attempt where a bullet was fired, he is said to have responded, "Oh, really". Yet his trial may represent the end of a looser era in France. A brief look at the issues surrounding the first trial of a former French leader since WWII.

After facing accusations for years, why is this coming to trial now? Chirac has faced accusations of misusing public money and kickbacks for years. Questions have surfaced regarding luxury family vacations, paid for in cash. Investigators produced evidence that Chirac had spent over 2.14 million euros of city money on "family groceries" while mayor of Paris. He was also cited in a complex bribery scandal involving the award of lucrative housing contracts in Paris. Chirac has been able to avoid charges in the past due to the immunity he enjoyed as president, as well as what the Telegraph calls "the incredible lethargy of a seemingly pliant justice system." While the city of Paris dropped its charges against Chirac last year after a settlement of 2.2 million euros, an anti-corruption group recently challenged the out of court settlement, calling for the lawsuit to proceed, according to France24.

Does Chirac need to be worried? While he faces up to 10 years in jail as well as a 150,000 euro fine, Chirac doesn't "seem to be in really hot water," the Telegraph says:

The state prosecution office--which operates under the direct authority of the justice ministry--has already said it was pushing for a dismissal, "because there isn't enough proof." Only cynics, perhaps, will observe that we stand barely a year from the next presidential election, and Nicolas Sarkozy will need the entirety of the Gaullist party, nostalgic Chiraquiens and all, squarely behind him in what will be a tight race.

Chirac is also the getting what could appear to be special treatment from the court: the former president has been granted permission to skip the first day of trial, and will have a special, more comfortable chair waiting for him when he does show up. Rumors have surfaced around the 78 year-old's declining health although his wife has firmly denied reports that he has Alzheimer's. Futhermore, Chirac currently enjoys a "Teflon-like" popularity in France, writes Moutet: "He is considered fondly by Right and Left alike. The former regret his more consensual style. The latter give him credit for opposing the Iraq war from the start."

Do other French politicians have anything to fear? While historically the French have been more tolerant of their politicians' lavish use of public funds, the worldwide recession and a shifting political sensiblitiy has changed that, according to the Telegraph. While the "public used not bat an eyelid at secret second families housed and guarded at the Republic's expense (François Mitterrand's), lavish holidays paid by exotic tycoons in five-star palaces (Mitterrand, Chirac), gifts of diamonds by megalomaniac African tyrants (Valéry Giscard d'Estaing), secret state funds re-routed to political campaigns (everyone's, even staid, Calvinist Socialist PM Lionel Jospin)," says Moutet, more recently a minister recently got sacked for charging his office 12,000 euro for Cuban cigars and many have come under fire for recent connections to the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie resigned in February for having accepted free flights to vacation in Tunisia just as the unrest there was breaking out.

In this current affair, reports the BBC, "nine other people are on trial, including Mr Chirac's former chief of staff Remy Chardon." It's possible they won't enjoy the extra cushion Chirac is widely presumed to have in court, and may fall to the country's new hard line on corruption.

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