- Associated Press - Monday, March 7, 2011

PARIS (AP) — A long-awaited corruption trial opened Monday with former French President Jacques Chirac as the star defendant.

He is the first French head of state to go on trial since the country’s Nazi-era leader was exiled, though Mr. Chirac did not show up for a first day expected to be dominated by procedural issues.

Mr. Chirac, 78, is accused of embezzlement, breach of trust and conflict of interest, based on allegations linked to his tenure as Paris mayor — before he became president from 1995 to 2007.

A prison term for the man who famously rallied against former President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq 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).

Judge Dominique Pauthe opened Monday’s trial by calling the case’s 10 defendants. When Mr. Chirac was named, lawyer Jean Veil said he would be representing the former president. The judge stumbled over Mr. Chirac‘s birth date before continuing the proceedings, in which he read the charges.

A last-minute protest by one of Mr. Chirac‘s co-defendants has come up over procedural issues, but the court isn’t expected to rule on that motion until at least Tuesday.

Mr. Chirac is not expected in court until Tuesday. The trial is expected to go on for a month.

Media interest in the case is high. Security teams have blocked off Mr. Chirac‘s access route into the courtroom to avoid photographers and TV crews.

The proceedings are taking place in the 11th Chamber at Paris’ central courthouse on the Ile de la Cite island in the Seine River, not far from Notre Dame Cathedral. The chamber, now devoted to financial affairs, was where Marie Antoinette and others were tried during the French Revolution.

Investigating magistrates say Mr. Chirac masterminded a scheme to have Paris City Hall pay for work that benefited his political party while he was mayor. One allegation is that the head of a top French labor union had his bodyguard and driver improperly paid for by the city.

Mr. Chirac repeatedly has denied any wrongdoing. He insists that France had no judicial rules at the time that laid out party financing and that the expenses were approved by the city council.

For years, Mr. Chirac benefited from presidential immunity to avoid legal proceedings. Some claims were suspended at the time, allowing the statute of limitations to invalidate many allegations against him.

The trial centers on alleged wrongdoing in only the last three years of his 18-year term as mayor, largely because the allegations of hundreds of other bogus jobs before then are considered too old to warrant a trial.

Mr. Chirac is best known abroad as a prominent critic of the U.S.-led Iraq war. A towering figure in French politics for decades, he championed French exceptionalism.

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 never has been fully explained.

Pierre-Antoine Souchard contributed to this report.


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