PARIS - A voice from the grave is haunting President Jacques Chirac as he heads into a campaign for re-election against his Socialist challenger, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, and has prompted a widespread perception that France's political system is deeply corrupt.
Jean-Claude Mery, an official of Chirac's Rally for the French Republic party when Chirac was mayor of Paris, died of cancer last year but left behind a videotaped "confession" in which he said he had collected millions of dollars in kickbacks from city contractors with the full knowledge of Chirac, then the mayor.
He said the bribes were shared with Jospin's Socialists and with the Republican Party, now known as the Liberal Democrats.
With prosecutors saying they have testimony from several contractors supporting Mery's contention, pressures have built up steadily on Chirac to answer the allegations and led last week to a nationally televised interview in which he denied any involvement in the scandal.
"I can't believe" such practices occurred, he said.
Chirac, who has been president since 1995 and has 16 months to go in his term, described himself as a "victim" because his privileged position makes it impossible for him to go into a court and defend himself.
The scandal is the latest of several that have rocked the French political establishment in recent years. Chirac's successor as mayor, Jean Tiberi, has been under investigation for suspected vote rigging, and his wife has been accused of earning city money by questionable means.
Former Socialist Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn recently was forced to resign over charges of involvement in another financial scandal. And Chirac's former prime minister, Alain Juppe, was accused several years ago of misusing city-owned apartments in Paris to house his relatives.
Some newspapers and prosecutors have likened the level of corruption in France to that uncovered in the past decade in Italy, where several thousand politicians were accused of crimes. Some politicians say that is a gross exaggeration.
"I'm sorry, we are not Italy," said Jerome Peyrat, chief of staff of Chirac's Gaullist party. "We are in a teen-age crisis by comparison. This is not a corrupt country."
Most political observers say there is no chance that Chirac will face charges or be forced to resign.
"You have Kleenex politicians in America, and we have nuclear waste politicians," said law professor Guy Carcasonne. "Yours are disposable, but once ours get into office we can never get rid of them."
Jospin was head of the Socialist Party during part of the time Chirac served as mayor, from 1978 to 1995. There have been no suggestions that he knew of the alleged kickbacks or approved of them, and officially his party is taking a detached attitude, saying justice must take its course.
"The Socialist Party doesn't want to fight the presidential election on this issue," said Regis Pesserieux, international secretary of the party. "Scandals give our party no pleasure at all. We think this situation is rather sad."
He took issue with Chirac's contention that he is unable to defend himself in a legal sense. The president can always sue his accusers for defamation if he thinks he has been wronged, he said.
Carcasonne, the law professor, observed that the French people have so little confidence in their politicians that most are prepared to believe the allegations against Chirac.
That does not necessarily mean they are true, he said.
Mery, whose deathbed confession gave rise to the scandal, was not always a reliable witness and sometimes gave conflicting accounts to different judges who investigated him and sent him to jail, Carcasonne said.
The scandal relates to the award of $400 million in contracts for schools in the Paris region.