- Associated Press - Sunday, March 6, 2011

PARIS (AP) — After years of claiming presidential immunity to avoid legal proceedings, Jacques Chirac is finally facing a court.

The former president, a bugaboo for U.S. President George W. Bush during his rush to war in Iraq, on Monday becomes France’s first former head of state to go on trial since its Nazi-era leader was exiled.

That is, if the whole case isn’t derailed by a last-minute protest by another defendant.

If the trial goes ahead as planned, Mr. Chirac, 78, faces a month in court on charges that he masterminded a scheme to have Paris City Hall pay for work that benefited his political party when he was mayor — before he became president in 1995.

A prison term is seen as highly unlikely, but in principle, Mr. Chirac, if convicted, could be jailed for up to 10 years and fined 150,000 euros ($210,000).

France’s restive political circles are gearing up for next year’s presidential race, but the fallout from this trial is unlikely to hit anyone other than Mr. Chirac and the nine other defendants, including a grandson of Gen. Charles de Gaulle and a former left-wing labor union leader.

Still, the trial looms as an embarrassing coda to Mr. Chirac‘s 12-year presidential term, potentially denting his legacy, recent philanthropic work and image as one of France’s most popular personalities since he left office.

The trial also will shine a spotlight on the underside of high-level politics that could be uncomfortable background noise for Mr. Chirac‘s successor and one-time protege, President Nicolas Sarkozy, who wants to rebuild his depleted poll numbers before a possible re-election bid.

The trial fuses two separate but similar cases.

One of the other defendants, former Chirac aide Remy Chardon, says the two cases shouldn’t be combined. His lawyer told the Associated Press he will ask the judges Monday to decide whether the decision was constitutional, which could throw the whole trial into disarray.

In the first case, Investigating Magistrate Xaviere Simeoni in Paris has focused on claims that Mr. Chirac had City Hall pay for 21 contract hires who never worked for the city but instead worked for his party, then called RPR. He faces charges of embezzlement and breach of trust.

Magistrate Simeoni, in her order for Mr. Chirac to stand trial, wrote that he was the “conceiver, author and beneficiary” of that system.

The other case, led by Investigating Judge Jacques Gazeaux in the western Paris suburb of Nanterre, centers on seven jobs at Mr. Chirac‘s former party said to be improperly paid for by City Hall. Mr. Chirac is accused of illegal conflict of interest in that case.

That case netted a conviction and temporary ban from political office in 2004 for Mr. Chirac‘s longtime political ally Alain Juppe, a former prime minister who recently returned in a big way to political life — and is now foreign minister.

Mr. Chirac will answer for only a fraction of the scandals that have hounded him over the years; the others were either thrown out for a lack of evidence or had exceeded the statute of limitations. Even for those going to court, he will answer for just 21 total jobs out of 481 turned up in the investigation by Magistrate Simeoni’s team: Those before 1992 are too old to warrant prosecution.

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