French court gives Chirac immunity as president

Broad ruling thwarts investigations into corruption allegations


PARIS - France's highest court of appeal has granted President Jacques Chirac broad immunity while in office, effectively derailing efforts by five investigating magistrates to question him on a range of corruption allegations dating from his time as mayor of Paris.

Yesterday's broad ruling agreed with Chirac's stance that as head of state he is above the law, confirming that the president cannot be compelled to appear as a witness in a case, even one as mundane as a traffic accident.

But the ruling, the first of its kind by the court in France's 43-year-old Fifth Republic, was not entirely good news for the conservative Chirac, who is expected to seek re-election next year.

The court said the statute of limitations would be suspended during Chirac's presidency. That leaves the possibility that he could face charges if he fails to win in the April elections, when he is expected to face off against Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.

Some political analysts said the court had in effect turned the French electorate into a jury, leaving it up to them to decide whether to return Chirac to office or open the possibility that he could face a trial. Even if he wins re-election, Chirac could still face charges at the end of that term, though prosecutors note that it becomes harder and harder to make a case as memories fade of the period when Chirac was mayor, from 1978 to 1995.

After the ruling, a Socialist legislator who had been gathering signatures to try to impeach Chirac said he would drop his efforts in light of the decision, which ruled that while in office Chirac could be pursued only for high treason.

"The republic will have to rely on the voters," said the legislator, Arnaud Montebourg. "They will have the heavy task of deciding whether their president remains immune or is sent to the Palais de Justice."

The ruling provides Chirac with a shield of sorts against what he has repeatedly denounced as an election-year witch hunt.

Since he was elected president in 1995, Chirac has faced a rising tide of corruption allegations from his days as mayor. The ruling was issued in response to a challenge to presidential immunity from a man who had been implicated in one of the corruption cases.

But anti-corruption investigators working on at least three separate cases want to question the president. One case involves allegations of favoritism and misappropriation of public money at City Hall's printing company.

Another involves charges of taking kickbacks for contracts to build low-income housing.

Chirac has gone on television several times to deny any wrongdoing. When a videotaped confession from a former aide, now dead, came to light, Chirac dismissed the man's meticulous account of illicit fund raising as "abracadabraesque."

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