Jacques Chirac finally to face corruption charges

A reputation for excess hounded the former French president throughout his political career.

A reputation for excess hounded the former French president throughout his political career.

THE long-awaited trial for corruption of former French president Jacques Chirac is set to start today, an ugly intrusion into the veteran leader's golden retirement from the political front line.

After 12 years as head of state, two terms as prime minister and 18 years as mayor of Paris, the 78-year-old Gaullist bowed out in 2007 after a political career that spanned half a century.

Graft allegations from his time as Paris mayor dogged Chirac's later years in office, when he was openly attacked as a "crook", and he handed power to Nicolas Sarkozy under a cloud of suspicion.

Chirac had long managed to keep the courts at arm's length despite losing the immunity from prosecution that shielded him as head of state. But now the past has come back to haunt him.

He is to be tried on charges of using the city payroll to pay salaries to aides who were in reality working for his right-wing political party during his long tenure as mayor from 1977 to 1995.

But it was unclear last night whether he would attend the trial after his lawyers submitted a medical report to the court that said he was mentally unfit to take part. The presiding judge was expected to respond to the report today.

Investigating magistrates opened an inquiry into Chirac's running of the mayor's office in 1999 after receiving a complaint alleging widespread abuses, including graft, illegal party financing and destruction of evidence.

The prospect of Chirac in the dock may come as little surprise to the French public. A generation of French voters grew up on a drip feed of media revelations about the alleged excesses of Chirac and his wife while he wielded power from his base in city hall.

Corruption claims against Chirac were for some time a running joke on the country's top satirical television show, which lampooned him as as a cape-wearing anti-hero: SuperLiar.

One sketch cast Chirac and his wife Bernadette as a pair of geriatric "gangsta" rappers, wallowing in banknotes and thumbing their noses at the law while they lived the high life at taxpayers' expense.

Chirac in 2009 published a 500-page book of memories tracing his childhood years in Correze, deep in rural France, and his extraordinary rise to become a pivotal figure of the Fifth Republic.

The book includes a candid admission that the years spent in pursuit of power meant that there was little time to spend with his daughters: Claude, who became an adviser, and Laurence, who has been battling severe anorexia and mental illness for more than 30 years. The Chiracs have a third, adopted Vietnamese daughter, Anh Dao Traxel.

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