- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 8, 2011

PARIS (AP) — A Paris judge delayed a historic trial in which former French President Jacques Chirac is accused of corruption, suspending the proceedings until at least June because of a complaint by defense lawyers.

Tuesday’s decision threw an unexpected wrench in a case that took years to make it to court and threatened to expose the ugly underbelly of French politics as the country gears up for next year’s presidential race. Mr. Chirac is the first former French leader to face trial since the World War II era.

The trial, which opened Monday, centers on Mr. Chirac‘s time as mayor of Paris from 1977 to 1995, before he became president. He enjoyed immunity from prosecution during his 12 years as head of state.

Exceptionally, two different investigations were combined into one trial, both focusing on accusations that he misappropriated city money for his conservative political party. Mr. Chirac repeatedly has denied wrongdoing.

A lawyer for one of Mr. Chirac‘s co-defendants argued that one of the complaints was made too long ago to merit a trial today and that it wasn’t constitutional to combine the two cases into a single trial.

Judge Dominique Pauthe on Tuesday sent that protest to France’s highest court, the Court of Cassation, which has three months to decide whether the case merits consideration by the Constitutional Council, the body that judges the constitutionality of French laws.

Taking into account that maximum three-month process, Judge Pauthe then delayed the proceedings in his court until June 20, when it simply set a date for the trial to resume — possibly months from now or even deep into 2012.

That date will depend on lawyers’ availability and, possibly, an unwritten rule in French jurisprudence that politicians should not be tried during the electoral campaign. France’s presidential and legislative elections are planned for next year.

While Mr. Chirac has retired from day-to-day politics, he remains a huge presence in the political landscape — and President Nicolas Sarkozy was the candidate of Mr. Chirac‘s former conservative party.

Mr. Chirac himself was not present in court Tuesday. He was back in his office, where he did not speak to gathered reporters.

Mr. Chirac “took note of the delay,” his office said in a terse statement released after the decision, reiterating that he was not behind the protest motion made by a lawyer for one of the nine other defendants on trial.

Georges Kiejman, one of Mr. Chirac‘s five defense lawyers, said outside the courtroom that the former president had been planning to attend Wednesday’s session so that he could start making his case then.

Mr. Kiejman suggested that time may wear on the 78-year-old Mr. Chirac‘s acuity and memory — and that that could hurt his ability to defend himself in court.

“It’s not an advantage for Jacques Chirac that this trial has been delayed,” said Mr. Kiejman, noting that Mr. Chirac isn’t getting any younger. “Every day that goes by, we’re running the risk of being a little less brilliant.”

Lawyers hoping to bring Mr. Chirac to trial predicted the delay spelled trouble for their case in the long run.

“Jacques Chirac is once again going to escape the justice system,” said Jerome Karsenti, lawyer for an anti-corruption association that was perhaps the leading civil party to the case.

The trial focuses on an alleged 28 jobs paid for by Mr. Chirac‘s Paris City Hall from 1992 to 1995, but for work that instead benefited his RPR political party and its allies. It has been brought by two investigating magistrates, in Paris and suburban Nanterre, whose two cases have been fused into one.

Jean-Yves Le Borgne, lawyer for former Chirac chief of staff Remy Chardon, argued that the statute of limitations had run out on the Paris case and that the one in Nanterre was joined to it just to get around that fact. The Paris case is seen as more severe because it involves more alleged fake jobs.

With France’s presidential election next year, the trial had shaped up as a glimpse of an underworld of kickbacks, corruption and embezzlement that long has roiled the French political system.

Mr. Chirac, president from 1995 to 2007, famously rallied world opinion against President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. Mr. Chirac is the first former French leader to go on trial since Marshal Philippe Petain, the leader of France’s Nazi collaborationist regime, was convicted of treason and shipped into exile.

Pierre-Antoine Souchard and Cecile Brisson contributed to this report.

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