Jacques Chirac was placed under formal investigation on Wednesday for embezzlement of public funds during his time as mayor of Paris, making him the first former French president to be named a suspect in a criminal inquiry.

The probe into Mr Chirac’s role in the creation of fictitious jobs attached to the mayor’s office was triggered after a second round of questioning by an examining magistrate, his lawyer, Jean Veil, confirmed.

Formal investigation is a preliminary stage that could lead to charges and a trial. Mr Chirac’s immunity from prosecution expired in June, six weeks after he vacated the Elysée palace.

The case involves some 20 jobs, paid with public funds and notionally related to the city hall, that were allegedly given to sympathisers of Mr Chirac’s centre-right RPR party during his mayoralty from 1977 to 1995. The positions included chauffeurs for an RPR senator from the Paris suburbs and for a former union leader.

Four of Mr Chirac’s chiefs of staff from this period are already being treated as formal suspects under the investigation, which began nine years ago. In 2004, Alain Juppé, the former prime minister and ex-deputy mayor of Paris, was given a suspended prison sentence for his role in the affair. The punishment was reduced on appeal.

As the judges prepared to open their formal investigation of Mr Chirac, he wrote an article in Wednesday’s Le Monde, in which he said he had acted properly: “Never were City of Paris funds used to further ambitions other than serving Parisians.”

He also said he had recruited extra staff because of the mayor’s expanding responsibilities and because of his additional political roles during the period, including that of member of parliament, prime minister and president of the RPR party. He had employed people to “enlighten him” on educational, economic, social and sports issues, “a small number of aides” to help co-ordinate his duties, and “some men and women of quality, who were appropriately qualified but also going through a difficult time in the careers and to whom I wished to give a second chance”. The appointments were “as legitimate as they were necessary”, he wrote.

When Mr Chirac was first questioned as witness in the affair on July 19, he penned an article in the same newspaper, explaining that “old habits” of party financing were the product of a “context that is no longer properly understood”.

“Political leaders of that period acted with probity and out of concern for the public interest,” he said. “If you took yourself back to that time you would understand how difficult their task was.”

Scandals over irregular party funding were a familiar part of the French political scene during the 1980s and the 1990s.

The jobs allegation is not the only case hanging over the former president. Examining magistrates would also like to establish Mr Chirac’s role in the so-called Clearstream affair, an alleged conspiracy to blacken the name of Nicolas Sarkozy in 2004 and thwart his presidential ambitions. However Mr Chirac still has immunity over actions undertaken as part of his presidential duties.

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