PARIS - Vastly experienced as a mayor, prime minister and now president, Jacques Chirac is beginning to look like one of Europe's great political survivors, even as he becomes ensnarled in allegations of corruption.
The allegations of wrongdoing linked to his tenure as mayor of Paris, from 1977 to 1995, have left the French public largely unconcerned. The press rarely manages to fluster him. And judicial investigators don't have the authority to question him. He remains favored to win next year's presidential elections, even though he hasn't declared his candidacy for a second term. But for all his political might, Chirac faces one critic who refuses to give up without a fight.
Stuck on the Socialist Party back benches in France's 580-member National Assembly is an outraged, determined lawmaker named Arnaud Montebourg, who is on a one-man mission to impeach the French president.
Montebourg is trying everything he can think of to topple Chirac and alert the French public to rot in the country's political system. Since spring, he has sought to persuade 10 percent of his fellow Assembly members to sign an impeachment motion against Chirac, compel debate and bring the measure to a vote. A symbolic act at best, the motion would be unlikely to pass in the Senate, which is dominated by conservatives aligned with Chirac.
Gathering only 33 of the needed 58 signatures, Montebourg hasn't won support from leaders of his own Socialist Party, including Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, its likely presidential candidate against Chirac.
But Montebourg has done a lot of name-calling and rabble-rousing, with the public buying 30,000 copies of his impeachment petition at bookstores.
"How can we explain to our compatriots that crimes committed by Presidents Joseph Estrada [in the Philippines], Alberto Fujimori [in Peru] and Richard Nixon can be tried but no judge can be found in France to try President Jacques Chirac?" he writes in the motion.
"We are living a kind of big Watergate in France," Montebourg said in a telephone interview while on vacation in Corsica. "French people are not used to touching their monarch. But they are going to change their mind."
Montebourg is confident the tide will turn against Chirac because of long-simmering allegations of corruption during the years when Chirac wielded power at City Hall.
"No man is above the law, except the president of the French Republic," Montebourg said. "That is not acceptable."
But what is and is not acceptable in French political life remains open to question, as does the public's interest in a story built upon allegations from Chirac's time presiding over Paris.
Illicit fund raising alleged
Among the various cases swirling around Chirac from his time as Paris mayor include allegations of illicit political fund raising through kickbacks from contractors - a scheme that may have benefited all the major political parties. Sham jobs also were alleged to have been given to members of Chirac's Rally for the Republic Party.
Chirac also has faced allegations that he and his entourage paid $320,000 in cash from mysterious sources for air travel between 1992 and 1995. It has been reported that Chirac's chauffeur was allegedly dispatched to a travel agency with suitcases full of cash to pay for the trips, which were booked under false names.
During a Bastille Day television interview, Chirac said that he had "nothing to hide," that the cash and false names were used for security reasons and that the reported amounts were grossly inflated.
"When I looked at my diaries and examined the facts, this figure did not just deflate, it went `pschitt,"' Chirac said, making a sound like the carbonation being released from a newly opened soft drink.
Chirac also clung to a claim that, as president, he is immune from being questioned by magistrates, saying: "The president of the republic is not the same as other citizens."
Court to consider case
France may soon find out whether that claim is true. The country's highest court is expected to begin proceedings in October on whether Chirac should be required to testify in a case about alleged City Hall corruption.
He can count on the fact that peccadilloes are accepted in French political culture, such as revelations that former President Francois Mitterrand had a mistress or that former President Georges Pompidou tried to keep his mortal illness secret from the public.
The powers of the presidency itself were initially tailored to the outsized proportions of Charles de Gaulle, founder of the Fifth Republic. And no one here is entirely surprised that, beginning in 1947, perfectly legal but secret cash funds were sent to the presidential office and ministries, with the money often used to finance campaigns and reward key government officials.