PARIS – A French judge ordered former President Jacques Chirac to stand trial on embezzlement charges predating his presidency — a case that could mark the first time a former leader of modern France is forced to defend himself in court.
A prosecutor can still appeal the judge's decision to try Chirac for embezzlement and breach of trust in a corruption case dating back to his tenure as mayor of Paris, and if so, the ensuing judicial deliberations could last months.
Still, the judge's bold pursuit of Chirac, who lost his presidential immunity when his 12-year presidency ended in 2007, stunned many observers. Judges chased Chirac unsuccessfully in various corruption scandals for years, and prosecutors had requested that this particular case be dropped.
Many French politicians fretted openly Friday about how the case would affect France's reputation abroad. It's just one of several current scandals alleging dirty dealings in the conservative political establishment that Chirac headed for years.
One of Chirac's former prime ministers, Dominique de Villepin, is on trial, accused of orchestrating a smear campaign against Chirac's successor, Nicolas Sarkozy. Villepin denies the charges.
And in a court verdict just this week, Charles Pasqua, an influential former interior minister, was sentenced to a year in prison for influence peddling connected to arms trafficking to Angola. He plans to appeal.
As for 76-year-old Chirac, the mere fact of his being investigated is already a humiliating coda to his four-decade-long political career.
Chirac has been dogged by suspicions of corruption and nepotism, mostly from time as Paris mayor, from 1977-95.
Xaviere Simeoni, the investigating judge who ordered Chirac to stand trial, has been probing whether people in his circle were given sham jobs as advisers and paid by Paris City Hall, even though they weren't working for it.
Chirac's office said in a statement that he was "serene and determined to prove in court that none of the jobs still being debated were fake." Chirac has retired from politics and heads a foundation devoted to helping the developing world.
The judge's decision elicited mixed feelings from politicians, and even Chirac's past political foes expressed sympathy for him.
Segolene Royal, the Socialist presidential candidate in 2007, said all people are equal before the law but also told Europe-1 radio that Chirac "did a lot for the country, and today, he's a man who deserves to be left alone." Like many on the left and right, she worried that the case "wasn't good for France's image."
The current president, Nicolas Sarkozy — whose relations with Chirac are frosty, said, "Whatever feelings I may have for Jacques Chirac, I can't comment."
If sent to trial and convicted, Chirac would risk up to 10 years in prison, a euro150,000 ($221,800) fine and disqualification from public office for 10 years. Observers say a jail sentence would be highly unlikely.
Throughout his presidency, Chirac used his presidential immunity to keep investigators at arm's length. Meanwhile, judges closed in on those in his circle — his former Prime Minister Alain Juppe was convicted of party financing irregularities in 2004.
But months after Chirac left office in 2007, judge Simeoni filed preliminary embezzlement charges against him.
Judges like Simeoni have extraordinary powers — they not only investigate suspects but also decide whether to charge and put them on trial — but the government is preparing to cut their functions drastically. Magistrates' unions and legal scholars questioned whether it would have been possible to take the Chirac case this far without the existing system.
The breach of trust charges against Chirac date from October 1992 to March 1994, while the embezzlement charges covered March 1994 to May 1995, the judicial official said. The statute of limitations has expired on events before 1992.
Chirac's office denied allegations that there was a generalized system of corruption at work during his time at city hall. Its statement said that only 21 suspected phony jobs are still at issue, out of 481 probed by investigators.
The nine others also sent to trial with Chirac include Michel Roussin, a chief of staff to Chirac at city hall, accused of complicity in breach of trust, the official said. Among those ordered to stand trial on suspicion of having benefited from the phony jobs scheme is Jean de Gaulle, a grandson of former President Charles de Gaulle.
Since the Fifth Republic was founded in 1958, no former French president has appeared in court.
Marshal Philippe Petain, who headed the 1940-1944 collaborationist Vichy regime, was found guilty of treason and imprisoned on an island off the Atlantic coast until his death in 1951.