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France's Chirac Under Investigation for Embezzlement

Lisa Bryant

A French judge has put former president Jacques Chirac under formal investigation for suspected embezzlement during his 1977-1995 tenure as Paris mayor. For VOA, Lisa Bryant reports from the French capital the matter is unprecedented in recent French history.

According to one of Jacques Chirac's lawyers, the former president was questioned by judge Xaviere Simeoni in connection to an allegedly fake jobs scheme that took place at Paris city hall when Mr. Chirac was mayor.

Mr. Chirac lost his immunity from prosecution in May, when he stepped down from office after 12 years as French president. He denies wrongdoing, and made his defense in an opinion article published in Le Monde newspaper. He said the 20 hirings now under investigation were completely justified.

This is the second time the former president has been questioned by a French judge since leaving office. But this it the first time preliminary charges were filed against him - the first against any modern French president.

Steven Ekovich, a French politics professor at the American University of Paris, says, "I think there is a fundamental message and that is in a democracy nobody is above the law. Except presidents are usually constitutionally covered against any kinds of legal maneuvers because there is always a fear of trying to chase a president for political reasons. But we can say the justice system in France works - it is a solid democracy."

But Mr. Chirac also sits on the constitutional court, France's highest judicial body - an automatic right for a former president. Ekovich says that may create a problem.

"If indeed Jacques Chirac is charged with any kind of crime it is going to be very difficult for him to participate on judgments on that constitutional court," he said.

Mr. Chirac has been dogged by a number of corruption allegations during his marathon political career that includes heading the former conservative Rally for the Republic Party, and tenures as prime minister as well as Paris mayor and French president.

A member of Chirac's ruling Union for a Popular Movement party denounced the inquiry on French radio as a "political inquisition." A leading member of the opposition Socialist Party, Arnaud Montebourg, welcomed it - but said it came far too late.

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