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Wednesday, 10 October, 2001, 11:14 GMT 12:14 UK
Chirac wins immunity battle
Jacques Chirac
The president can only be tried for treason, the court ruled
The highest appeal court in France has backed President Jacques Chirac's claim that he cannot be forced to answer questions on sleaze claims against him, as long as he remains president.


The president cannot throughout the duration of his term, be heard as a witness, nor can he be investigated, cited or sent before a court in any infraction before a criminal jurisdiction

Court of Cassation
The court said he had immunity from prosecution and questioning in connection with an anti-corruption inquiry which is looking into claims of wrongdoing while Mr Chirac was mayor of Paris.

The 19 appeal judges accepted that, as long as Mr Chirac remained president, he did not have to testify in the case. They said he could appear as a witness if he chose to, but could not be summoned.

The president has denied the allegations against him, but has been refusing to answer questions, claiming his status as president gives him immunity.

Precedent

The battle went to court because, while French presidents have immunity from prosecution for crimes committed while carrying out their presidential duties, it is unclear whether this protection covers alleged crimes which took place before that.

Elysee Palace
Mr Chirac wants to stay in the Elysee Palace for another term
The state prosecutor had told an initial hearing at the court that the president should be granted immunity from the courts for the duration of his presidency.

Opposing lawyers had argued this would undermine the principle of equality enshrined in the constitution - in effect making some citizens more equal than others.

But the Court of Cassation - which had gathered together all the most senior judges to decide on the matter - ruled that the only time the president could appear before court was if he committed high treason as part of his official duties.

The ruling sets an important precedent both for Mr Chirac and for those who will succeed him.

Chirac claims

Mr Chirac has been implicated in a fake jobs scandal in his party, the RPR, and in fraudulent dealings surrounding a printing press.


I have a hard time believing that a president of the republic could be brought before a court 15 years after the fact

Lawyer Guy Lesourd
There are further allegations his party lined its pockets with bribes from public building contracts and - most recently - that he paid for lavish trips for his family out of public funds.

On each occasion when allegations involving the president have come to court, Mr Chirac has maintained his presidential right to immunity and ignored the judges' summons.

The appeal judges' decision means the corruption allegations will be waiting for him when he leaves the Elysee Palace, giving Mr Chirac's campaign for re-election in 2002 an added significance.

But Guy Lesourd - one of the lawyers who fought to strip Mr Chirac of his immunity - said that it seemed unlikely that the charges would be brought after such a long time.

"I have a hard time believing that a president of the republic could be brought before a court 15 years after the fact," he said.

Ex-minister set to go free

Wednesday's ruling comes as another member of France's political elite looked set to escape conviction.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn
Dominique Strauss-Kahn was forced to resign over corruption allegations
The corruption case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn - the popular former finance minister in Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's cabinet - has all but collapsed.

Prosecutors, who brought a forgery case against Mr Strauss-Kahn for work he did as a lawyer before he became minister, admitted this week that there were no longer grounds to convict him.

They have already dropped charges that he used funds from the formerly state-owned oil giant, Elf, to pay his secretary's salary.

France has been swept by sleaze scandals in the past few years - notably the Elf affair which earlier this year saw Francois Mitterrand's former foreign minister, Roland Dumas, convicted for accepting illegal funds in a dramatic court case.

See also:

04 Sep 01 | Europe
Chirac corruption inquiry halted
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
20 Jul 01 | Europe
Q & A: Chirac's corruption battle
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