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Tuesday, 8 January, 2002, 17:24 GMT
Chirac faces ransom allegations
French President Jacques Chirac
More 'scandals' expected as Mr Chirac seeks re-election
James Coomarasamy

The French President, Jacques Chirac, is coming under increasing pressure to explain his role in a hostage controversy that dates back 14 years to the time when he was prime minister.

French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin
PM Jospin: expected to be Chirac's main rival

Despite official denials, Mr Chirac is now alleged to have paid Iran to release a group of French hostages who were being held in Lebanon in the 1980s.

French officials have always denied that ransom was paid, but a leaked secret service memo discovered last month alleged that $3 million changed hands.

It also said that an aide to the then Interior Minister, Charles Pasqua, personally profited from the transaction.

On Monday, the former head of a shadowy presidential security force accused Mr Chirac of agreeing to negotiate the hostages' release with Iran - the first time that any official has publicly made that claim.

Dirty campaign

Although much of this is likely to wash over the French public's heads, many observers here see this murky affair as a taste of what could be a dirty presidential campaign this year.

Mr Chirac is expected to face his long-time rival - the Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.

As for Charles Pasqua, who is planning to stand as a right-wing candidate, he has accused the Socialists of manipulating the leak.

But whoever is behind it, few people here expect it to be the last scandal of its kind in the next few months.

The BBC's James Coomarasamy
"A leaked secret service memo alleged 3 million dollars changed hands"
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
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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