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Wednesday, 18 July, 2001, 19:38 GMT 20:38 UK
Chirac escapes sleaze questions
President Chirac speaking during a live TV interview on 14 July
Mr Chirac insists the money came from a legal fund
French President Jacques Chirac will not face questioning in France's latest sleaze affair but judges have found strong evidence against him in the cash-for-air tickets allegations.

Claude Chirac
Claude Chirac is her father's "image adviser"
A panel of three anti-corruption magistrates have decided they do not have the authority to summon him.

In their 18-page report they did, however, find "evidence making Mr Chirac's participation [in the affair] likely," Le Monde newspaper reported.

The decision overturns an earlier ruling which stated that Mr Chirac could be called as a witness in the investigations.

Although the climbdown is a victory for Mr Chirac - who has insisted for months that his position as head of state makes him immune from questioning - the report leaves him under a cloud of suspicion.

Precedent

Investigators had hoped to force Mr Chirac to explain where he got the money to spend 2.4m francs ($315,000) in cash on plane trips abroad for himself and his entourage during his tenure as mayor of Paris between 1992 and 1995.

State prosecutor Jean-Pierre Dintilhac said last week that he would appeal if the three judges decided they did not have the authority to question Mr Chirac.

State prosecutor Jean-Pierre Dintilhac wants to call the president for questioning
Prosecutor Jean-Pierre Dintilhac wants to question the president
But the decision follows precedents set by several other investigations into Mr Chirac's past - including probes into council house corruption and fictional employment - where judges have had evidence against the president but have declared themselves powerless to pursue him.

There has been suspicion that the funds for Mr Chirac's plane tickets came from bribes known to have been paid to his party by building contractors when he was mayor of Paris.

He says that the sums paid for the air tickets were lower than reported and that the money came from secret but legal government funds.

Though the president will not have to answer the judges himself, the investigations will continue.

Last week, magistrates quizzed Mr Chirac's daughter, Claude, who is one of his closest political advisers, about some of the private trips her father made in the 1990s.

It is thought Mrs Chirac could also be questioned about trips she made with her husband.

Suspicion and rumour

Mr Chirac has expressed fury that his family has been drawn into the affair.

Speaking during the traditional Bastille Day parade on 14 July, he said the cash-for-air fares row had been blown out of proportion.

He said there was a climate of suspicion, rumour and manipulation.

The decision by the three judges not to question Mr Chirac is being seen as a clear legal victory for the head of state.

But the BBC's James Coomarasamy in Paris says the affair has been extremely damaging to Mr Chirac, who is expected to run against Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in next year's presidential election.

See also:

26 Jun 01 | Europe
Chirac faces cash payments probe
29 Mar 01 | Europe
No-show Chirac faces press anger
28 Sep 00 | Europe
Cheques, lies and videotape
11 Jan 00 | Europe
Court upholds Chirac's immunity
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