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A French magistrate has ordered former President Jacques Chirac to stand trial on embezzlement charges dating back to the 1990s, when he was mayor of Paris. The order is unprecedented, and follows several other trials targeting former high-level politicians.
Former President Jacques Chirac did not respond directly to news he has been ordered to stand trial, but a statement from his office said he was serene and determined to clear himself.
Chirac is charged with embezzlement and breach of trust relating to allegations that 35 people were given fake jobs at Paris city hall between 1994 and 1995, when he was mayor. A veteran politician, 76-year-old Chirac served as both Paris mayor and prime minister of France, before becoming president in 1995. He left office in 2007.
Although he has been dogged by several scandals, he has so far avoided prosecution.
Reactions to the news were swift, with some opposition politicians praising the justice system for having done its work. But a number of Chirac supporters sharply criticized the move, including one former advisor, Jean-Francois Probst.
In an interview on French radio, Probst suggested the judge's order was part of a larger attack on the conservative circle surrounding Chirac. Two of Chirac's former prime ministers, Alain Juppe and Dominique de Villepin, have both stood trial on separate charges, while ex-interior minister Charles Pasqua was sentenced to prison in a third trial that ended this week.
But international relations professor Steven Ekovich, of the American University of Paris, has his doubts whether Chirac will ever face trial.
"It's a little surprising, but I doubt it's going to go very far, mostly because of his age," said Steven Ekovich. "Maybe mostly because of his age. And I can't imagine that President [Nicolas] Sarkozy will let it go very far. I think this is just part of the justice system following procedures."
While Chirac left the presidency with dismal approval ratings, his popularity has since soared. In a poll earlier this year, he was rated France's most popular politician.