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Tuesday, 5 March, 2002, 19:38 GMT
Sleaze bursts back onto French agenda
Didier Schuller
Didier Schuller: Stoking the fires of controversy
A sleaze row which has threatened to dominate the French election campaign burst back into life on Tuesday.

A former local politician, Didier Schuller, who is under investigation for an alleged party funding scam, told French national radio that he knew President Jacques Chirac "well".

That contradicts Mr Chirac's previous insistence that he was only a passing acquaintance of Mr Schuller.

Mr Schuller has in the past insinuated that the president was implicated in the funding scandal.

The row comes as new opinion polls suggest Mr Chirac's socialist challenger for the presidency, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, has nudged into a narrow lead.

Well-known

While he ran the public housing department in a region west of Paris, Mr Schuller is alleged to have awarded contracts to building companies in return for bribes for Mr Chirac's RPR party.

Jacques Chirac campaigning in Mantes-La-Jolie
The Schuller affair could take its toll on Chirac at the polls
Mr Schuller has told newspapers that the bribery system was set up by people above him, and indicated that Mr Chirac - who was mayor of Paris at the time - may have been involved.

Asked about his relationship with Mr Chirac by RTL radio on Tuesday, he said: "I knew him like other elected representatives from the Paris region knew him...that is to say well".

A spokeswoman for Mr Chirac repeated the president's assertion that he had not been well acquainted with Mr Schuller.

Mr Schuller returned to France in early February after seven years on the run.

Since his release from custody on bail last week, Mr Schuller has reportedly been passing the time in cafes on the Champs Elysees, where he has been speaking freely with journalists who join him.

In an interview with the French daily Le Monde published on Tuesday, Mr Schuller alleged that President Chirac's entourage had counselled him to remain in his hideaway in the Dominican Republic until after the French have voted in next month's presidential elections.

Zero immunity

Mr Schuller also claimed he had been advised to flee in the first place by Francis Szpiner, a lawyer said to be close to the Chirac camp.

Mr Chirac's campaign spokeswoman, Roselyne Bachelot, has sought to distance the president from such allegations.

"I don't know what advice Mr Szpiner gave him, but in any event it's advice that did not come from Jacques Chirac," she told reporters on Tuesday.

Despite the rigorous defence of the president launched by his camp, analysts nonetheless agree that the Schuller affair could take its toll at the polls.

Mr Chirac is campaigning on a law and order ticket. Commentators say his "zero immunity" pledge on crime has a hollow ring when it comes from a president who has protected himself from corruption probes by using his presidential immunity from prosecution.

Some of Mr Chirac's supporters have already suggested that the timing of Mr Schuller's discovery is too advantageous to the Socialist Party to be merely coincidental, with one minister claiming that the government had "orchestrated" his return.

See also:

05 Feb 02 | Europe
Analysis: Crime or conspiracy?
15 Jan 02 | Europe
Analysis: How corrupt is Europe?
14 Jan 02 | Europe
Chirac judge claims sabotage
04 Sep 01 | Europe
Chirac corruption inquiry halted
20 Jul 01 | Europe
Q & A: Chirac's corruption battle
14 Jul 01 | Europe
Chirac hits back at critics
12 Jul 01 | Media reports
Chirac's 'house on fire'
28 Sep 00 | Europe
Cheques, lies and videotape
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