- Associated Press - Friday, October 30, 2009

PARIS — Former French President Jacques Chirac has been ordered to stand trial in an alleged corruption scandal dating back to his time as Paris mayor — 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 Friday surprised many. The prosecutor’s office had requested that the case against Chirac 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 76-year-old Chirac’s being investigated has been a humiliating coda to his 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 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 ($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.

But months after Chirac’s successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, took office in 2007, a judge filed preliminary embezzlement charges against Chirac. His office denied allegations that there was a generalized system of corruption at work during his time at city hall. Its statement said that only 21 suspected phony jobs are still at issue, out of 481 probed by investigators.

The breach of trust charges against Chirac date from October 1992 to March 1994, while the embezzlement charges covered March 1994 to May 1995, the judicial official said. The statute of limitations has expired on events before 1992.

The nine others also sent to trial with Chirac include Michel Roussin, a chief of staff to Chirac at city hall, accused of complicity in breach of trust, the official said. Among those ordered to trial on suspicion of having benefited from the phony jobs scheme is Jean de Gaulle, a grandson of the late Gen. de Gaulle.

Since the Fifth Republic was founded in 1958, no former French president has appeared in court.

Marshal Philippe Petain, who headed the 1940-1944 collaborationist Vichy regime, was found guilty of treason and imprisoned on an island off the Atlantic coast until his death in 1951.