Monday, March 21, 2005

Gallic chickens home to roost

Featured in The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and other newspapers today is the sorry tale of corruption in high places which threatens to "dynamite" the French political establishment

This cannot at all help Chirac's referendum campaign as 47 people have been in court today – some of them his closest former political allies – on trial over a vast "kickback" scheme allegedly run from city hall while Chirac was mayor. And, to add to the embarrassment, on of those in the dock, Guy Drut, is now a member of the team coordinating the Paris Olympic bid.

The case involves Chirac's RPR (Rally for the Republic - now UMP) party, whose officials were alleged to be siphoning off millions of pounds in bribes from construction companies in exchange for contracts worth £2.8bn to build and maintain secondary schools in the Paris area. Altogether, £60m in bribes between 1989 and 1996 - the year after Mr Chirac's 18-year tenure at city hall ended – is estimated to have been paid out

Four former RPR ministers, including Guy Drut - the 1976 Olympic 110m hurdles gold-medallist - 24 company bosses and several high-ranking party officials are among the accused. Civil servants, businessmen and public works executives are also accused of benefiting from the scam, dubbed the "lyceé dossier". Most have admitted that they knew of the scam, and if convicted of a range of corruption offences they could face up to ten years in jail.

Chirac, often known as l'escroc, remains immune from prosecution, or even questioning, for as long as he remains president. And, despite statements by investigating judges in the case that they had "strong and concordant evidence" that he was at the very least aware of the scheme, he has consistently dismissed any suggestion of his being implicated as malicious and unfounded nonsense.

But his credibility is not helped when Michel Roussin, Chirac's chief of staff for more than a decade - both while the president was mayor of Paris and prime minister – is accused of "complicity in and receipt of the proceeds of corruption".

Louise Yvonne Casetta of the RPR is also one of those accused. She was already at the centre of another party funding scandal involving fictitious jobs at the Paris town hall, which caused the downfall of former prime minister Alain Juppé. As the RPR's unofficial treasurer, she has already testified that it was Mr Roussin's responsibility to inform Mr Chirac of all corporate "gifts" to the party.

Further evidence of the president's involvement came in accusations by a former property developer and senior RPR official, Jean-Claude Méry, made public in 2000. In a videotaped confession, Mr Méry, who died of cancer in 1999, accused Mr Chirac of setting up the covert fundraising system. He said he had helped many companies to win city hall contracts in return for the bribes, usually of around 1.5 to 2 percent of a contract's value.

Describing how he once handed over a suitcase containing £500,000 to Roussin in Chirac's presence, Méry said that total payments to the RPR reached "£3.5m to £4m every year for more than seven years, all under my direction". "We worked only on orders from Mr Chirac," Méry added on the hour-long tape.

Other former Paris officials have also implicated Chirac in their testimony. The former deputy director of the city's public works department, François Ciolina, told investigators that Chirac was "the inspiration" for the scam, and that the coffers of the RPR party were "the main beneficiary".

However, illustrating the corrupt nature of French politics, Chirac's right wing party is not the only one involved. Prosecutors allege that his party received 1.2 percent in "kickbacks" while the Socialists got 0.8 percent, which explains why the Left have been muted in their criticisms of official corruption.

Now, with the investigation having started in 1997, the trial is due to run through until the end of July, and may have a significant impact on the referendum, where the constitution is being labelled as Chirac's project. Just for once, there seems as if there might be some justice, with the mighty EU project being brought down by the venality of French politicians.

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