For the first time in recent French history, the country's highest court is examining whether a sitting president is immune from prosecution by an ordinary court. The question comes at a critical time, because French President Jacques Chirac has been dogged by a series financial scandals.
At issue for France's Court of Cassation, the country's highest penal court, is whether a sitting president be summoned before an ordinary court on matters that took place before his election to office.
Legal experts say the answer has a direct bearing on a series of allegations about political kickbacks in which President Jacques Chirac has been implicated. Reports say many of the alleged kickbacks took place during Mr. Chirac's 18-year tenure as mayor of Paris. He left the office in 1995, when he was elected president.
Over the past two years, several judges have summoned President Chirac to appear as witness in ongoing investigations into financial scandals. Mr. Chirac has denied any wrongdoing. He has also argued that as a sitting president, he is immune from prosecution. The judges ultimately dropped their summons.
In 1999, France's Constitutional Council, an advisory body, concluded that a French president can appear for questioning only before the country's High Court of Justice, composed of parliamentarians.
According to news reports, early indications suggest the Cassation Court is not likely to go against the council's recommendations.
A 44-page analysis, submitted to the court by the prosecutor's office concluded that a sitting president could appear as witness only under strictly defined conditions, including the president's own agreement to being questioned. The office also agreed the president can be prosecuted only by France's High Court.
The question of presidential immunity comes at a critical time in France. Presidential elections are less than eight months away. Mr. Chirac is expected to run against Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. But so far, neither has declared his candidacy.
A rash of political scandals, implicating Mr. Chirac, have roiled France over the past year. Nonetheless, Mr. Chirac continues to enjoy high approval ratings, usually several points higher than Mr. Jospin.