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Wednesday, 10 October, 2001, 12:09 GMT 13:09 UK
Q & A: Chirac's corruption battle
France's President, Jacques Chirac, has been accused of corruption during his time as Mayor of Paris and as president of the Gaullist RPR Party.

Judges investigating the allegations wanted to question him, but have been thwarted by Mr Chirac's claim to presidential immunity, causing one of them to resign in disgust.

BBC News Online's Alexandra Fouché looks at what that means for Mr Chirac and French politics ahead of this year's elections.

What are the allegations against Chirac?

There are several cases under investigation, of which the four biggest are:

  • Paris public housing (or HLM) contracts backhanders: This investigation, initially opened by Judge Eric Halphen in 1994, concerns bribes allegedly paid for the allocation of public housing contracts, which are thought to have contributed to the financing of the RPR and other political parties. The allegations against two people close to Mr Chirac - the late Jean-Claude Mery and Michel Roussin - prompted prosecutors to ask how much he knew about the scam.

    Chirac's career
    1976-1994: RPR President
    1977-1995: Mayor of Paris
    1974-1976 and 1986-1988: Prime Minister
    Since 1995: President

    In September, the Court of Appeals threw out the case because of procedural flaws, but replaced Judge Halphen, with another magistrate, Armand Riberolles, who observers say may be able to resume the investigation.

  • Cash-for-tickets, linked to bribes on secondary school contracts: Backhander payments are also reported to have been made in return for contracts to refurbish secondary schools in the Paris region. The scheme, thought to have been put in place in the late 1980s, is said to have benefited all major political parties.

    Once again, Mr Roussin and Mr Mery were implicated, leading the investigation, which opened in 1997, in Mr Chirac's direction.

    In July it was revealed that large sums of cash, allegedly totalling almost 2.4m francs ($320,000), had been used to pay for trips for Mr Chirac and his family and close colleagues between 1992 and 1995. He says the money came from his personal allowances, but investigators believe it may have been one way of spending the illegal commissions.

  • Fake RPR jobs: This investigation, opened in 1996 by Judge Patrick Desmure, relates to fictitious jobs given to members of Jacques Chirac's RPR party by private firms - who would be granted public contracts in return - and the Paris town hall between 1988 and 1995. It is alleged Mr Chirac knew of the arrangement.

  • Sempap fraud: This investigation, which began in 1997 and is headed by Judges Armand Riberolles and Marc Brisset-Foucault, examines allegations of fraud and favouritism towards the Sempap company, responsible for the Paris town hall's printing requirements between 1986 and 1996 while Mr Chirac was mayor.

Can Chirac claim presidential immunity?

Under France's constitution, the president can be prosecuted during his term only for high treason and only by the High Court of Justice, which is called by parliament and is made up of 12 deputies and 12 senators.

Legal glossary
Cour de Cassation: France's highest civil and criminal court
State Council: France's highest administrative court
Constitutional Council: Rules on the constitutionality of laws and on the interpretation of the constitution
High Court of Justice: the only court able to judge a serving president
However, the constitution is silent on offences committed before the president's accession to power - in Mr Chirac's case when he was Paris mayor or heading the RPR.

A ruling by the Constitutional Council in 1999 said that even then, the president could claim immunity.

But there are no provisions in the constitution for the president appearing as a witness in legal cases. This led to extended legal wrangling as the president repeatedly ignored judges' summons to face questioning.

The Cour de Cassation gave a final ruling in October which upholds and refines the Constitutional Council's decision.

It says Mr Chirac cannot be prosecuted or called as a witness against his will during his term of office, though after that it is open season. But some believe by then - especially if Mr Chirac is re-elected in 2002 - it will be too late.

This decision so disgusted Judge Eric Halphen that he resigned from public office. He has compared Mr Chirac's actions to those of former US President Richard Nixon and said that justice did not exist in France.

What is all this doing for Mr Chirac's career?

Although he has yet to announce whether he is running for a second term, Mr Chirac is thought likely to seek re-election.

His popularity has so far not suffered in the polls and his likely opponent, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, has not exploited the sleaze card against him.

His daughter and her former partner have already been questioned, and other close family and aides, including the first lady, may be asked to appear before the investigators.

This would be certain to create controversy but might some observers say may very well increase the sympathy vote in Mr Chirac's favour.

See also:

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