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Plus, under one of the unusual aspects of France’s legal system, the Paris prosecutor, Jean-Claude Marin, actually will argue against a conviction. He argues there’s not enough evidence. It’s up to the judges to determine now whether there is.

Additionally, while not acknowledging wrongdoing, Mr. Chirac and his party struck a deal last year with City Hall — now run by the opposition Socialists — to pay back an $2.2 million calculated to be the amount paid in the jobs in question. As a result, the city won’t be among Mr. Chirac‘s accusers in court.

For years, investigating magistrates have sought to prosecute Mr. Chirac, who hid behind his presidential immunity during his term from 1995 to 2007.

Mr. Chirac repeatedly has denied any wrongdoing, insisting that France had no judicial rules laying out a framework for party financing at the time, and that the expenses were approved by the city council.

The behavior smacks of an era when France’s economy was fresh off a 30-year post-war boom and political largesse was commonplace, both on the left and the right. Mr. Chirac ran Paris like a fiefdom and made it his power base.

The trial, while focusing on his pre-presidency years, inevitably will raise the hypothetical question: Would Mr. Chirac have become head of state had he not — if as alleged — dabbled in corruption to build his political machine?

He will be the first former French head of state to stand trial since Marshal Philippe Petain, the leader of France’s Nazi collaborationist regime, was convicted of treason and shipped into exile after World War II.

The debonair Mr. Chirac has been one of France’s most towering political figures for at least 35 years: president for 12 years, prime minister twice, four-time presidential candidate, mayor of its biggest city for 18 years, Cabinet minister, National Assembly lawmaker and regional councilor.

Some say the case amounts to a test for the French judicial system as well as muscle-flexing by France’s independent-minded investigative judges, who often have run afoul of conservative governments in recent years.

Mr. Chirac‘s five-lawyer legal team has grown increasingly silent about the case as the trial nears, and Mr. Chirac wants to keep his comments for the court hearings, scheduled to run through April 8.

His health has been in question. In January, Mr. Chirac told a French TV station he was doing “fine” and denied he was too feeble to stand trial, and his wife denied as “a lie” a report saying he might have Alzheimer’s disease. Mr. Chirac was hospitalized for a week in 2005 for a vascular problem that has never been fully explained.

He also is said not to be letting on much about his state of mind ahead of the proceedings. Chirac spokeswoman Benedicte Brissart told the Associated Press only that he views the trial as “an ordeal.”

One major question is how much the proceedings — and a possible conviction — could stain his legacy as president.

In his term, Mr. Chirac was perhaps best known internationally for vocally opposing Mr. Bush’s drive to war in Iraq and, earlier, for resuming French nuclear tests in the South Pacific and recognizing the French state’s responsibility in the Nazi deportation of Jews during World War II.

Mr. Chirac, in recent years, has morphed from his image as a backslapping bon vivant with an uncanny knack for the political game into a more avuncular former president widely appreciated for his service and style.

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