A French magistrate Friday ordered former President Jacques Chirac to stand trial on charges of misusing millions of dollars in public funds as mayor of Paris by allegedly paying friends and colleagues for work they did not perform.
Magistrate Xaviere Simeoni led the investigation into allegations that Chirac invented job contracts for several friends and colleagues while he was mayor from 1977 to 1995. He is accused of paying them more than $5 million in public-funded salaries.
Simeoni ruled Friday that there was enough evidence to try Chirac on charges of diverting public funds and abuse of trust -- even though the state prosecutor recommended the charges be dropped.
Nine others have also been sent to trial, according to wire reports.
Chirac was immune from prosecution during his presidency, from 1995 until 2007.
In a statement, Chirac said he was “serene” and ready to prove that the salaries in question corresponded to legitimate work completed.
In an investigative interview with Simeoni, reprinted by the French weekly Le Journal du Dimanche, the former president often said he did not remember anything about several employees who appeared to be paid for doing nothing.
“I am stupefied and shocked at this situation,” he told Simeoni, when asked why one woman was allegedly paid two salaries for no reason.
“I underline that I am someone who has always worked an enormous amount -- without taking vacations or days off,” he added.
Simeoni is part of an independent body of investigating magistrates that handles fewer than 1 in 25 court cases -- including many of the most sensitive scandals involving elected officials.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been pushing to eliminate the body -- a product of the Napoleonic era -- in a bid to streamline the judicial process.
But Sarkozy’s opponents and many judges say the independent body helps balance power in a system that relies on state prosecutors who often are too dependent on the whims of the government that appoints them.
“State prosecutors are completely under the influence of public officials,” agreed Virginie Duval, judge and national secretary at of the French magistrates union.
“Politicians make and break their careers.”
If Sarkozy’s plan “had been adopted, it’s probable that Chirac would never be sent to court for the evidence held against him,” said Socialist Party spokesman Benoit Hamon.
Hamon said that many French were “wary” of Sarkozy’s initiative to end the use of independent magistrates and that the ruling against Chirac “will reinforce that conviction among a majority of French people.”
Lauter is a special correspondent.