French Judge Questions Chirac in Corruption Investigation

A French judge questioned former President Jacques Chirac for more than four hours Thursday in an investigation into a party financing scandal that dates to his time as mayor of Paris, his lawyer said.

It was the first time a French former president has undergone questioning under such conditions, and marks a sobering point in Chirac's four-decade political career.

The party financing investigation is the most potent of a string of potential legal problems the 74-year-old Chirac faces now that he no longer has presidential immunity. It remains unclear whether Chirac, who turned over power to Nicolas Sarkozy in May, will ever be tried in this or other legal cases implicating him.

Chirac was questioned as a material witness in his Paris offices by investigating Judge Alain Philibeaux, said Chirac's lawyer Jean Veil, who was also present. The questioning started at 9:15 a.m. (0715 GMT) and ended at 1:30 p.m. (1130 GMT).

"The former head of state explained himself very completely, very calmly, in a climate of great courtesy and simplicity," Veil told reporters outside Chirac's building afterward.

The judge has been waiting for years to talk to Chirac himself about how much he knew about the financing scandal, which has already targeted several former colleagues of Chirac's.

The investigation concerns a fake jobs scheme used to finance Chirac's conservative party RPR while he was mayor of Paris, from 1977-95. He was president from 1995 until May 16.

Investigators say RPR operatives were illegally on the Paris city payroll in a scheme to help finance the party, and that the equivalent of millions of euros (dollars) in salaries and fees were doled out.

The RPR, or Rally for the Republic, was later replaced by the UMP, or Union for a Popular Movement, which now dominates parliament and Sarkozy's government.

Philibeaux's investigation turned up a 1993 letter in which Chirac requested a raise for a secretary who was paid by City Hall — but who actually worked at party headquarters.

Former Prime Minister Alain Juppe, a close Chirac ally, was convicted in the case in 2004 and given a 14-month suspended prison sentence and a yearlong ban from politics.

Under French law, a material witness falls between a simple witness and a suspect. The material witness is not formally under investigation and has the right to a lawyer during questioning, but can later face charges if investigating magistrates find "serious or concordant signs" of an infraction or a crime.

Chirac wrote a column in Le Monde newspaper released Thursday explaining that France long had no judicial rules laying out a framework for party financing.

He said France passed several laws from 1988 to 1995 as it attempted to clarify the rules. "In a few years, we had to pass from a system of customs and arrangements to a regime clearly laid out by the law," Chirac wrote.

"In a spirit of clarity and responsibility, I want to remind the magistrates of this context, without which nothing can be understood," Chirac wrote.

Chirac also said that, starting in 1984, he pushed to create a body to guarantee transparency in the RPR's financing.

Chirac could also face questioning in an offshoot investigation of the jobs case, as well as in two unrelated corruption investigations dating to before his time as president.

He has refused, however, to be questioned in two other cases — the so-called Clearstream affair involving a smear campaign against Sarkozy, and the alleged killing of a French judge in Djibouti in 1995.

Chirac's office says that, because he had constitutionally guaranteed judicial immunity while he was president, he cannot be ordered to provide testimony about incidents that happened during that time.

Chirac's former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin is expected to be questioned in the Clearstream case next week, and will probably be hit with preliminary charges. Villepin and Chirac deny wrongdoing.

Sarkozy's spokesman David Martinon would not comment on the questioning except to call it a "judicial affair."