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French Court Confirms Chirac Immunity - 2001-10-10

France's highest court ruled Wednesday that a sitting president was essentially immune from judicial prosecution for actions committed before taking office. The ruling is good news for President Jacques Chirac who is implicated in several financial scandals.

For many French analysts, the Wednesday decision by France's Court of Cassation came as no surprise. By ruling that a sitting president could not be pursued by an ordinary court, the country's highest court essentially followed the 1999 conclusion of France's Constitutional Council, an advisory body.

Legal analysts say it is likely to end efforts to summon President Jacques Chirac to appear as a witness in ongoing investigations into alleged kickbacks, which supposedly took place when Mr. Chirac was mayor of Paris. Mr. Chirac has refused to answer those summons, which have been issued by several judges over the past two years. Mr. Chirac was mayor for 18 years, until 1995.

The President has denied any wrongdoing, and has argued that as a sitting president he is constitutionally immune from prosecution. The judges ultimately dropped their efforts to have the President testify.

In its Wednesday ruling, the 19-member court also limited a French president's chances of appearing before the High Court of Justice, composed of parliamentarians. That could only take place, the Cassation Court ruled, in matters of high treason.

Earlier this year, Socialist lawmaker Arnaud Montebourg tried to get Mr. Chirac impeached for alleged financial impropriety. But the National Assembly parliamentarian was unable to get enough support to bring the measure to vote.

The Elysee presidential palace offered no immediate reaction to the Cassation Court's ruling, the first of its kind in modern French history.

Analysts predict the ruling will offer a political boost for President Chirac, who is expected to run for reelection next year. Despite the allegations of financial wrongdoing dogging the president, Mr. Chirac continues to enjoy high ratings in French public opinion polls.