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Tuesday, 4 September, 2001, 16:12 GMT 17:12 UK
Chirac corruption inquiry halted
French President Jacques Chirac
Mr Chirac may seek a second term in office
A French court has thrown out a summons calling on President Chirac to give evidence in a corruption inquiry, and replaced the judge who issued it.


It's proof that this agitation was motivated by politics and a desire for publicity aimed at tarnishing one man

RPR secretary general Serge Lepeltier
The case, concerning an alleged illegal party financing scam, is just one of several that the president faces - and the investigation could resume under the new judge.

But the ruling by the Paris Appeals Court is seen as a political victory for Mr Chirac, and comes as a new opinion poll shows him pulling ahead of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, the man seen as his strongest rival in presidential elections next year.

"It's proof that this agitation was motivated by politics and a desire for publicity aimed at tarnishing one man," said the secretary general of Mr Chirac's RPR party, Serge Lepeltier.

The court said Judge Eric Halphen had made procedural mistakes and replaced him with another magistrate, Armand Riberolles, who is already leading other investigations into Mr Chirac's activities.

Denial

The case has been under way since 1994 and relates to events during Mr Chirac's time as mayor of Paris between 1977 and 1995.

It was referred to the appeals court after Mr Chirac refused to give evidence, pleading presidential immunity.

Lionel Jospin
Jospin: Likely presidential challenger

Two other suspects in the probe then asked the court to cancel the whole inquiry on grounds of procedural irregularities.

The court ruled Judge Halphen committed errors at various times, including when he seized a videotape that contained evidence implicating Mr Chirac, and when he summoned the president for questioning.

Legal observers say it is now up to Mr Riberolles to decide whether to resume the investigation against Mr Chirac and to put right the procedural errors.

The inquiry had alleged that the RPR party used contracts for building low-cost housing to organise the illegal funding of several political parties.

Jean Tiberi, who succeeded Mr Chirac as mayor of Paris
Jean Tiberi: Expelled from the RPR for his alleged role in the housing scandal
In a live TV interview last year, Mr Chirac not only denied any knowledge of the funding details but said he did not believe an organised backhander scheme had existed.

The inquiries have not yet damaged the president's popularity.

The latest poll, conducted for the weekly Paris Match, shows his rating rising six points to 61% and Mr Jospin's slipping two points to 52%.

It suggests that if he and Mr Jospin were to run head-to-head for the presidency, as they are expected to do in May next year in a second round vote, Mr Chirac would win by 51% to 49%.

Other investigations

The French president still faces other investigations, including one relating to fictitious jobs given to members of the RPR by private firms and the Paris town hall between 1988 and 1995.

It is alleged Mr Chirac knew of the arrangement.

Another involves luxury trips abroad in the early 1990s.

At issue is the origin of the cash - about $320,000 - which the Chirac family spent on private air tickets between 1992 and 1995, when the current president was still mayor of Paris.

In early October, one of France's highest courts, the Cour de Cassation, will rule on whether the president is allowed to testify in court cases as a simple witness, in a much anticipated ruling expected to set the tone for all the current investigations.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Sunita Thakur
"Two other investigations concerning President Chirac are ongoing"
Political Analyst, Gilles Corman
believes the decision is significant for Mr Chirac
See also:

26 Jul 01 | Europe
Another setback for Chirac
18 Jul 01 | Europe
Chirac escapes sleaze questions
14 Jul 01 | Europe
Chirac hits back at critics
28 Sep 00 | Europe
Cheques, lies and videotape
07 Aug 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: France
12 Jul 01 | Media reports
Chirac's 'house on fire'
20 Jul 01 | Europe
Q & A: Chirac's corruption battle
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