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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 July 2007, 21:45 GMT 22:45 UK
Party funding row haunts Chirac
By Hugh Schofield, Paris

Former French President Jacques Chirac. File photo
Mr Chirac knew about the practice
Among the myriad "affaires" - or scandals - that consumed so many acres of newsprint in France in the 1990s, there was one that stood out for the sheer beauty of its deviousness.

It was a classic scam in which building companies paid under-the-counter commissions in order to win bids to renovate schools in the Paris region.

So far - in the grubby world of late 20th-Century French politics - so normal.

But what set the "Paris lycees affair" apart from the rest of the pack was the destination of the illegal money.

Rather than going solely into the coffers of Jacques Chirac's Rally for the Republic (RPR) party via the capital's city hall, the funds were divvied up.

On every rigged contract, a 2% levy was raised. 1.2% went to the RPR and its centrist allies, 0.8% went to the Socialist and Communist parties.

In other words, the whole political class was privy. They all had their hands in the pot.

'No law existed'

Years later, when the case came to court, the heads that rolled were from both left and right.

Reporters near to the office Mr Chirac in Paris
There was a media scrum outside Mr Chirac's office in Paris

The notion that illegal party funding was the exclusive preserve of Mr Chirac and his cronies was shown to be a naive simplification.

To this extent, the former president is surely right to plead - as he does now - that any judgment on the dubious practices of the 1980s and 1990s must take into account the context of the time.

Mr Chirac, who lost his immunity from investigation after he left office in May, has just been interviewed by a judge probing one of several cases still pending from his long service as mayor of Paris in 1977-1995. Criminal charges cannot be ruled out.

In an article in Le Monde, he explains how originally no law existed governing the funding of political parties.

As a result, it became the custom accepted by the left and the right to raise money from "private firms and even public budgets".

'Let bygones be bygones'

This had not mattered when parties' costs were low, but they sky-rocketed in the 1980s with the growing importance of communications and the creation of European and regional elections.

Not until 1995 was a law finally passed establishing public financing of political parties and banning company donations.

Alain Juppe
Former Prime Minister Alain Juppe was convicted in the affair

"It was in this period up to the law of 1995, marked by an explosion of financial needs and the inefficacy of the existing fragmentary rules, that the so-called party funding scandals took place. They concerned all parties - left as well as right," Mr Chirac says.

This is certainly true. The question is: what difference does it make in law?

After all, scores of people have been disgraced by the courts in France's party funding trials.

They include several of Mr Chirac's own close associates, such as former Prime Minister Alain Juppe whose political career was wrecked by his conviction in 2004.

Opposition leaders like Henri Emmanuelli of the Socialists have also taken the rap.

The fact that the illegal practices were widespread was no excuse for them, so why should it be for Mr Chirac - especially as 80% of the public now say he should be treated as a citizen like any other?

If there is a difference between his and other cases, it is not the lack of evidence - his article in Le Monde was a tacit admission he knew what was going on - but more simply, the passage of time.

Thankfully, France has moved on from the disturbing days of a decade ago, when news bulletins were dominated by fresh revelations of political corruption.

The party funding law of 1995 seems to be working. The secret deals with the money-men have, apparently, stopped. With Mr Chirac's departure from office, it all seems part of another era.

That is why French people have a conflict of feelings on what to do with their former leader.

Let bygones be bygones, is a common reaction. But so is "the law is the law".

Profile: Jacques Chirac
19 Jul 07 |  Europe

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