Judges study Chirac charges in his absence

French judges began on Tuesday to wade into the evidence that former president Jacques Chirac presided over a network of ghost workers while mayor of Paris, but the suspect himself stayed away.

The court has ruled that 78-year-old Chirac, said by doctors to be afflicted by memory lapses, does not need to attend the second day of the hearing into murky goings on at city hall some two decades earlier.  

But the case will continue without him, with the court now examining the lengthily compiled dossier of evidence against him, and the defence counsel to protest his innocence in absentia.  

The charge sheet alleged that he was the “inventor, author and beneficiary” of a conspiracy to use public funds to “support his political influence” and serve his own “interests and ambitions, or those of his party”.  

Chirac is still a hugely popular figure in France — his approval ratings still far outstripping his embattled successor President Nicolas Sarkozy — and his trial had been keenly anticipated as a moment of political theatre.  

Now, with the former Gaullist champion staying away, much of the drama has gone, but if found guilty of using public funds to illegally pay for political work he faces up to 10 years in jail and a fine of €150,000 ($210,000).  

Chirac is the first French former head of state to face criminal charges since the leader of the collaborationist wartime regime, Marshal Philippe Petain, was convicted of treason after World War II.  

Chirac enjoyed immunity from prosecution as president from 1995 to 2007, but the case, which already saw current Foreign Minister Alain Juppe convicted in 2004 and banned from holding elected office for a year, has finally caught up with him.  

Juppe will himself be a witness in the trial with his testimony set for September 15, court officials said.  

Chirac is accused on two counts of hiring members of his political party for non-existent municipal jobs in Paris, where he was mayor from 1977 to 1995, effectively using the civic payroll to employ his own campaign staff.  

Chirac, who became France’s best loved politician after leaving office in 2007, avoided trial in March when lawyers for a co-defendant won a postponement by arguing certain charges were unconstitutional.  

France’s highest appeals court later over-ruled the challenge and he seemed doomed to appear in the dock until Saturday, when his lawyers suddenly issued a statement claiming he was medically unfit.  

“President Chirac indicated to the court his wish to see the trial proceed to its end and his willingness to assume his responsibilities, even though he is not entirely capable of taking part in the hearings,” they said.  

A neurological report drawn up at his family’s request concluded that Chirac was in “a vulnerable condition which will not allow him to answer questions about his past”, Le Monde newspaper said on Saturday.  

Chirac’s adopted daughter Anh Dao Traxel told AFP the former president had not recognised her when she bumped into him in front of his Paris home in February. She described him as “an old, sick man”.  

Amid public sympathy for the man best known abroad for his opposition to the 2003 US-led war in Iraq, even state prosecutors have called for the case to be dismissed, and few expect him to face severe sanctions.  

Paris city hall dropped a civil suit against him in return for a payment of more than €2.2 million from him and his right-wing UMP party.  

Chirac paid more than half a million euros of this from his own pocket but did not acknowledge any wrongdoing.

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