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The Paris Money Machine

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Times Online

October 30, 2009

When the judge comes calling, French politicians always declare themselves "serene" because they are not guilty of anything. Today it was finally the turn of Jacques Chirac. From his luxury hotel in Morocco, he had his spokesman issue the traditional serene statement as France pondered on the prospect of putting its last president on trial.

The charges that have caught up with Chirac, 76, are a trifle compared with the shenanigans that went on at the city hall during his 18-year-reign as the first Mayor of Paris since the 19th century. Against the wishes of the prosecutor -- an old friend -- the examining judge wants Chirac to stand trial over a couple of dozen allegedly fraudulent jobs on the city payroll when he was Mayor, from 1977-1995.

Back in his 1980s and early 90s, when Chirac used the baronial city hall as his power base and seat for his Gaullist party, the mayoral machine was celebrated for this kind of largesse. Generous to a fault, Chirac commanded a grace and favour system that benefited friends, supporters and their associates. If you had the connections, someone in the Mayor's big private office could help your children with jobs or fix you up with a handsome Paris apartment at council-house prices. The son of Alain Juppé, Chirac's first Prime Minister, was among beneficiaries of such cut-price accommodation -- until he was exposed and forced to leave in 1996. Two of the charges facing the former President now involve the provision of chauffeurs on the mayoral payroll to a former prefect and a former trade union leader.

Money was no object for the Chirac family, according to accounts from former insiders and judicial investigators. When Bertrand Delanoe, a Socialist, followed Jean Tiberi, Chirac's successor, as Mayor in 2001, his inspectors found that the city's tax payers had been funding 600 euros a day in food and drink for Jacques, Bernadette and Claude, their daughter. The funds did not even cover entertainment expenses, which were separate.

Until today, the former President has escaped the legal fall-out from a period when the city hall was raking in millions of pounds a year in kickbacks from building contractors and other businesses. Several of Chirac's former lieutenants and about four dozen businessmen and former officials have been convicted in recent years for their role in the illicit payments and use of public money for financing the Rassemblement pour la République, the Mayor's party. The most prominent among them was Juppé, who received a suspended sentence and a brief ban on holding elected office in 2004 for corruption while he served as Mayor Chirac's deputy in the 1980s and 1990s. The fall-out from the case forced him to resign a cabinet post from President Sarkozy's first Government but he has bounced back as Mayor of Bordeaux.

It is acknowledged in the political world that Juppé carried the can for his boss, who as president enjoyed immunity from prosecution for 12 years until Sarkozy succeeded him in 2007. But it was not always plain sailing. The cloud of sleaze dogged Chirac for much of his presidency, as it became ever clearer that the city administration had been a money machine. Until appeal courts confirmed a judicial ruling on his immunity in 2001, Chirac skirted disaster after the publication of a posthumous video tape made by Jean-Claude Méry, one of the RPR's clandestine financiers in the 1980s and early 90s. Méry depicted Chirac as the instigator and controller of the biggest kickback schemes. He claimed to have regularly collected suitcases of cash from donors and deposited them with the Mayor.

At the same time, investigators found that Chirac, his family and friends, including a woman journalist, had recently made expensive trips to Indian Ocean resorts and the United States, with expenses paid in cash. The President's staff explained -- with difficulty -- that the money came from cash which he had legally accumulated when he had served as Prime Minister under President Mitterrand from 1986-88. Chirac shook off the brewing scandal by deploying his charm and an obscure word in a celebrated television appearance in September 2001. The sleaze allegations were "abracadabradantesque" -- pure fantasy -- he said. Nevertheless, the government of the time, under Lionel Jospin, put an end to the so-called "special funds". These were bundles of cash which were traditionally distributed to cabinet ministers once a month for use at their discretion. The money was supposed to be used to top up staff pay, but no records were kept.

Chirac, who now enjoys his country's affection as its genial elder statesman, has always succeeded in 'passing between the raindrops', or staying dry, as the handy French expression puts it [passer entre les gouttes]. He has escaped serious scrutiny in other matters, such as persistent reports that he had held secret bank accounts in Japan, and may have had a second family there. This month, he was an invisible presence in the court in the so-called Clearstream trial. Dominique de Villepin, his former Prime Minister, was accused of plotting to smear Sarkozy and witnesses said that President Chirac had been involved. But the former President was not asked to testify.

In yet another case, Charles Pasqua, a former Interior Minister and old Gaullist colleague, claimed this week that Chirac was implicated in bribery over arms sales to Angola in the 1990s. Pasqua was sentenced to 12 months' prison. The sentence was very stiff by the standards of French political corruption cases. Pasqua may never serve it but it is just possible that Chirac's alleged role will be investigated. Few people expect that case or yesterday's corruption charges to go far. Even if he is tried and convicted on the new city hall charges, the most Chirac can expect is a fine or suspended sentence.

There is a lot of sympathy for the old man. His presidency achieved little and will probably be remembered by historians as an uneventful 12 years. His chief act in public memory was his opposition to George Bush's Iraq invasion in 2003. But he now enjoys the rank of most popular politician in France, according to polls. Even old foes think they should just leave him in peace.

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