The corruption trial of Jacques Chirac, the former French president, has been postponed for at least three more months after judges accepted an appeal from a co-defendant challenging the legitimacy of some of the charges.
Judge Dominique Pauthe agreed to forward the case to the court of appeal for the examination of a defence claim that some charges fell outside the statute of limitations.
Mr Chirac, the first president of the Fifth Republic to be prosecuted for corruption, is accused of misusing public funds during his time as mayor as Paris almost 20 years ago. He allegedly sought to further his own political career by creating phoney jobs and had been due in court on Wednesday.
Investigators had decided to combine the charges in two separate cases arising from his time as mayor of Paris between 1977 and 1995. One relates to 21 allegedly phoney jobs created for friends, croneys and political allies at the City Hall, and a second involves allegations that the Mayor’s office used municipal funds to pay for seven employees in the RPR party Mr Chirac founded to consolidate his power base ahead of a bid for the presidency.
Mr Chirac and nine others, including two former chiefs of staff from his time at City Hall, faced charges in the first case, which cites bogus jobs created between 1992 and 1995.
Lawyers for Rémy Chardon, who was head of Mr Chirac’s staff between 1993 and 1995, had argued that the trial was unconstitutional as the three-year statute of limitations had expired by the time the charges were placed. The trial had only been made possible by linking the first case on 21 jobs to the second in seven, they argued.
Mr Chirac is the sole defendant in the second case, which judges said on Tuesday needed to be postponed until “around June 20” to allow both to be judged together.
The 78-year-old former president, who had planned to make a statement to the court on Wednesday, said he “had taken note” of the decision and that he planned to be present at the June hearing.
The appeals court has three months to examine whether the first case needs to be referred to the Constitutional Council. If this happens both trials could be delayed for up to six months.
Should the council decide that the first case is unconstitutional, this will arguably not affect the charges relating to the seven RPR jobs and Mr Chirac could still come to court in the autumn.
But many observers expect Mr Chirac’s lawyers to find legal reasons to further delay the case. Jean Veil, one of a team of five lawyers, warned against the risk that Mr Chirac’s trial could conflict with the campaign for next year’s presidential election, implying that it could be used for political purposes.
Alain Juppé, France’s new foreign minister and once Mr Chirac’s loyal ally as the former secretary general of the RPR, was condemned in 2004 to a suspended 14-month sentence and banned from politcs for a year in the same case. Mr Chirac benefited from presidential immunity at the time.
Neither Mr Chirac nor his laywers “had played a role in lodging the appeal”, insisted Georges Kiejman, another lawyer for the defence. Mr Chirac has publically acknowledged responsibility for the 21 jobs, but denies they were fake. The main victim, the Paris City Hall, dropped its complaint last year after the former president and the ruling centre-right UMP party struck a deal to repay €2.2m ($3m) to the mayor’s office.
Jérôme Karsenti, lawyer for the anti-corruption lobby group Anticor, said the decision to refer the trial was “a denial of justice”. “We should not be surprised that Marine Le Pen, (leader of the far right National Front) is at 23 per cent in the polls,” he said.
If convicted Mr Chirac could face a 10-year ban on holding office, up to 10 years in prison, a five-year bar on voting and a €150,000 fine.