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As Chirac bids not to appear at trial, calls to scrap French president's immunity grow

Reuters/Benoit Tessier

As former French president Jacques Chirac’s corruption trial was set to reopen without him Monday, some left-wing politicians called for an end to the president’s immunity from prosecution while in office.

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When the trial opens on Monday afternoon, Judge Dominique Pauthe has to decide whether to accept a doctor’s report that Chirac is unfit too appear in court.

Pauthe can accept the claim that neurological problems have rendered Chirac’s memory too bad to serve him usefully in court or he can call for a second opinion.

If he accepts the claim, he faces three options:

  • Excuse Chirac from appearing but pass judgement on him;
  • Judge his three co-defendants and put off judgement on Chirac;
  • Call off the whole trial.
     

The 79-year-old former president has said he wishes the trial, which is due to last three weeks, to go ahead whether he is present or not.

If found guilty, Chirac faces up to 10 years in prison and a150-euro fine.

He is accused of being at the heart of a scheme which used Paris city council cash to run his right-wing RPR party while he was mayor of Paris. The RPR has since been transformed into President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP.

Dossier - The Bettencourt scandal

Most of France’s major parties have been found to have organised similar illegal financing, which usually involved putting party workers on a council’s payroll, partly in order to bypass France’s electoral finance law.

Although some bloggers have pointed out that Chirac’s memory was good enough to publish his memoirs just three months ago, politicians of all parties have reacted with sympathy to Chirac’s ill-health claim.

But some have called into question the president’s immunity from prosecution, claiming that is the reason he faces trial at such an advanced age.

French politics no stranger to scandals

“We should perhaps ask why Jacques Chirac was not judged earlier,” declared aspiring Green presidential candidate Eva Joly, who built her reputation as an investigating magistrate. “The whole question of presidential immunity is in question.”

Speaking to France Info radio, Joly referred to the Bettencourt scandal, which has seen accusation made against Sarkozy, and added, “Clearly waiting 10 years for a verdict is not right.”

Socialist party member Pierre Moscovici agreed that the situation shows the “absurdity” of the immunity. 

He pledged that François Hollande, whose presidential campaign he is running, would scrap it for crimes alleged to have been committed before the president took up office.

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