PARIS -- Sometimes life is just so darned unfair. Consider the case of Jacques René Chirac, who retired in May 2007 as president of France and Grand Master of the Legion of Honor. Since then comfortably ensconced in a spacious, rent-free, Left Bank Paris apartment provided by a Middle Eastern politician friend, he had every reason to expect the life of a much-loved elder statesman -- fully three-quarters of his compatriots voiced their affection for him in polls -- while he busied himself with his memoirs and his virtuous Foundation for Peace.
To be sure, he had experienced the sort of minor inconveniences that befall many retirees. For instance there was his favorite pet, a white Maltese poodle called Sumo, who became depressed, apparently unable to adjust to a simpler life after the ormolu opulence of the Elysée Palace. So unhappy was Sumo that, despite professional help and medication, he threw a fit and mauled his master badly enough to send him to an emergency room. Adjustment to retirement also meant fewer occasions for expense-paid trips to Japan, where he had certain interests. Then too, it was harder to slip away from wife Bernadette in a chauffeured presidential limo for an evening's tryst.
But on the whole, life at age 76 was good. After more than 30 years of feeding plentifully from the public trough in the customary manner of French politicos, only last week he was enjoying a much-deserved vacation. His family joined him at La Gazelle d'Or, a palmy Moroccan oasis with fawning servants and individual cottages set among orange groves where rates start at $250 per person. He had just finished the first volume of the memoirs -- he refers to Nicolas Sarkozy coolly as "nervous, in a hurry, ready for action" -- and was looking forward to the promotion hoopla that his publisher had lined up for his return to Paris this week. It was then that fate took a most unfair turn in the form of a judge who brazenly refused to play the game by the usual rules.
For decades, several investigating magistrates (in France, cases can be instigated and investigated by both judges and public prosecutors who don't always agree) had compiled cases concerning Chirac's dubious activities during his long tenure as mayor of Paris from 1977 to 1995, when he became president. They involved elaborate illicit kickbacks from public works contracts, jobs and favors for friends, misuse of public monies to finance his political party, and other scams that would make Tammany Hall look like pikers. They all ran up against blockages by government-appointed public prosecutors who ruled that there was insufficient evidence to bring the case to trial. When one courageous magistrate, Éric Halphen, dared summon Chirac as a witness a few years ago, the Paris appeals court cancelled the proceedings on procedural grounds and removed him from the case.
But a corrupt justice system couldn't muzzle everyone. The heat was turned up in 2000 with publication of the contents of a posthumous videotape by a Paris businessman, Jean-Claude Méry. Méry, who died in 1999, officially of natural causes, recounted details of kickback schemes resulting in millions in cash that he personally delivered to Chirac's chief of staff, Michel Roussin, "In Chirac's presence… We only worked on Mr. Chirac's orders." Chirac nonetheless remained untouchable, but Roussin eventually was fined $73,500 and sentenced to four years on probation.
With bribes running an average of 2 percent on contracts ranging from printers of city documents to public housing, construction and maintenance of high schools, and privatization of the water works, the good times rolled at the baronial Hôtel de Ville. While Jacques, Bernadette, and their daughter Claude ran up bills totaling nearly $3 million in household and entertainment expenses, the number of Paris municipal employees exploded by 25 percent, nearly 2,000 of them incongruously in the mayor's home region of the Corrèze.
On the payroll or receiving consultant's contracts were the likes of a professional cyclist, a mountaineer, the bodyguard of a labor union leader, an adviser on culture and education (the wife of a political friend from Dijon), a fencing star and an assortment of spouses, daughters, nieces, and other camp followers. But with corruption so obvious -- the newspaper Libération accused Chirac of distributing fictitious jobs "like baguettes at the bakery" -- occasionally somebody had to be thrown to the media wolves.
Besides Roussin and several other aides who faced trial, the biggest catch was Alain Juppé, one of Chirac's closest political collaborators. Juppé had been general secretary of the Gaullist party receiving much of the largesse, as well as chief of finances at city hall, and had even served as Chirac's first prime minister in the early days of his presidency -- "the best among us," as Chirac called him at the time. But in 2004 Juppé was tried and convicted of abuse of public funds, receiving an 18-month suspended jail sentence, the deprivation of civic rights for five years, and forbidden to run for political office for 10 years. Everybody knew he had taken the fall for a ruthless pol some nicknamed "the Killer."
Enter a blonde, middle-aged magistrate named Xavière Simeoni, known for polite but tenacious determination in the course of investigations and for always checking her lipstick before questioning witnesses. Assigned the Chirac case after he left office and lost presidential immunity from prosecution -- a controversial status adopted by the Constitutional Council in 1999 with Chirac's insistent encouragement -- Simeoni studied a voluminous investigation file begun 10 years ago following a complaint by a solitary, incensed French taxpayer.
There she found reports on more than 400 city hall workers when he was mayor. Begging to differ with a recent ruling by the public prosecutor that, as usual, the evidence was insufficient for a trial, she decided to indict Chirac and nine of his aides for misappropriating public funds and abusing public office as mayor from 1977 to 1995. He should be tried, she wrote in her 125-page finding, for being "at the same time the designer, author and beneficiary" of a corrupt system. (He is not, however, accused of embezzlement or personal self-enrichment with public funds.) If convicted, Chirac could face up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $220,000. Although the wartime Vichy leader Philippe Pétain was convicted of treason in 1945, this will be the first time a former French head of state has been prosecuted for corruption.
Chirac's office issued a statement saying he was "serene" and would prove that none of his former aides held fake jobs. A spokesman for the center-right UMP party created by Chirac opined, "It is doubtless a painful test for the former president, and not necessarily very good for France's image" -- right on both counts. Support for Chirac is embarrassingly absent. Sarkozy, originally his political protégé and once linked romantically to Chirac's daughter, later dumping both to advance his own career, refuses to comment, as do all his cabinet ministers. The fickle weathervane of French opinion quickly swerved 180 degrees, with 72 percent now approving the indictment.
The Chirac legacy is being further besmirched by a series of courtroom brawls and convictions involving his political heirs and pals. His favorite, the former prime minister (and United Nations orator against the war in Iraq), Dominique de Villepin, was tried in October on charges of slandering Sarkozy with forged documents of illegal bank accounts -- again, it's an open secret who was behind the move -- to thwart his chances at the presidency. The verdict, involving an 18-month suspended prison term and $66,000 fine, is due in January.
And to make matters worse for Frère Jacques, just last week his former longtime ally and right-hand man, Charles Pasqua, was sentenced to a year in jail for illegal arms trafficking to Angolan rebels in the 1990s despite an embargo. Pasqua, a tough, pugnacious political survivor and pillar of Gaullism, is unlikely to take the fall for Chirac who, he says, knew all about the illegal deal and "should assume his responsibilities." As a former interior minister who had access to all of France's dirty little secrets, he knows where a lot of skeletons are hidden. A certain number of former and current members of government are sleeping less well this week.
As the 30-year Chirac era comes to its disastrous, Lear-like end, the spectacle of dirty tricks, fraudulent finance, and personal vendettas in French politics promises to provide fascinating political theater for some time to come.
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