PARIS – Alleged wrongdoing in Jacques Chirac's past came back Wednesday to trouble his retirement, when a judge took the unprecedented step of filing preliminary embezzlement charges against the former two-term president of France.
Chirac insisted he had committed no wrongdoing. Political opinion was divided on whether the judge had scored a victory for French justice or merely underscored its impotence — because only since he left office in May have judges been able to pursue Chirac.
Since he lost his presidential immunity, Chirac has now been questioned by two different judges looking into suspected misuse of public money and other alleged wrongdoing in his 18-year tenure as mayor of Paris, which served as one of his springboards for the presidency in 1995.
The judge that summoned him to her office Wednesday, Xaviere Simeoni, is investigating whether people in Chirac's circle were given sham jobs as advisers, paid by Paris City Hall even though they weren't working for it.
The respected daily Le Monde said Chirac specifically is suspected, as Paris mayor, of having hired a chauffeur in 1990 who later told investigators that he in fact had worked for a senator in Chirac's political party.
Chirac was mayor of Paris from 1977-95 and president of France from 1995 until May 16 this year.
In an article published Wednesday by Le Monde, Chirac denied any wrongdoing and said he had legitimately hired aides to help him with his multiple responsibilities.
He noted that aside from running Paris City Hall, he also served simultaneously as a lawmaker, as head of his political party and as prime minister from 1986-88.
"I surrounded myself with competent and lively teams," Chirac wrote, adding that they were "people who worked to enlighten me on basic issues — educational, social, economic and sporting problems."
"Never were Paris municipal resources devoted to ambitions other than acting for the Parisians. There was never personal enrichment," Chirac wrote.
The judge questioned Chirac for nearly four hours and informed him he was being placed under formal investigation for suspected misuse of public funds, said Chirac's attorney, Jean Veil.
Under French law, such preliminary charges mean the judge has determined there is strong evidence to suggest involvement in a crime. It gives the investigator time to pursue the inquiry before deciding whether to send the suspects for trial or drop the case.
Chirac, 74, became the first former president of modern France to face such a legal step. He is the 21st suspect to face preliminary charges in this particular probe.
Chirac's supporters leapt to his defense, saying those who got jobs at City Hall were bona fide aides.
"If he hired them, he must have needed them. They weren't there to walk his dog," said lawmaker Jean-Pierre Grand.
Others welcomed the judge's decision but lamented that she was not able to pursue Chirac while he was in power.
It is "a sort of posthumous victory," said Socialist lawmaker Arnaud Montebourg.
Suspicions of corruption and nepotism, mostly dating from his time as Paris mayor, dogged Chirac's presidency.
But while judges closed in on those in his circle — his former Prime Minister Alain Juppe was convicted of party financing irregularities in 2004 — Chirac used his presidential immunity to keep investigators at arm's length.
Simeoni questioned Chirac about the organization of City Hall while he was in charge, and follow-up questioning about the suspected sham jobs will come "in a few weeks or a few months," his lawyer said.