Jacques Chirac's long-awaited corruption trial will begin in Paris this week. But, as Anne-Elisabeth Moutet writes, he can go to court on Tuesday with serenity.
When Jacques Chirac finally shows up for his corruption trial, on Tuesday, in the Première Chambre Civile of the Paris Law Courts – the same where Queen Marie-Antoinette was once judged – he will sit on a special upholstered chair instead of the usual wooden bench in the dock.
There will be an extra lectern for the former French President's notes and documents, requested by his barristers; and a secured room within the historic Law Courts building will be made available to him to rest any time he "feels tired."
The court will already have sat for a full day; but Chirac, who is now aged 78 and in questionable health, has exceptionally been allowed to show up only on specific dates, the ones on which he is scheduled to be questioned by the judges.
Otherwise, we are asked to believe, the former president, now "a private citizen" after enjoying immunity from prosecution during his two consecutive terms from 1995 to 2007, will be tried like any other French politician accused of confusing official and party funds.
The case goes back to the early 1990s, when Chirac was Mayor of Paris.
On the city payroll were, it turned out, dozens of full-time employees who never did a stitch of work for the city. They were instead detailed to the right-wing RPR Gaullist party, there to help Mr Chirac's eventual, and successful, 1995 bid for the presidency.
The facts are not in dispute: other Chirac associates have already been sentenced for them, most notably former PM (and current Foreign Minister) Alain Juppé, who at the time was – conveniently – both Secretary General of the RPR and Paris Deputy Mayor for Finances.
Finally tried in 2004, Juppé was given a 12-month suspended jail sentence, and was declared ineligible for office for one year: he had to take a visiting professor's job in Canada for two years, before he could resume his political career.
The question is whether Chirac knew of his party's financial arrangements.
Although he denies it, he signed last year an out-of-court agreement with the capital's authorities whereby he and his party would refund them to the tune of €2.2 million. In exchange, the City relinquished its suit – to see it taken up by a group of Parisian taxpayers, outraged at what they see as a sweet deal for "less than half the true outlay".
As the case stands, Chirac, while theoretically facing up to 10 years in jail, a €150,000 fine and a five-year voting ban, wouldn't seem to be in really hot water.
For one thing, the state prosecution office – which operates under the direct authority of the justice ministry – has already said it was pushing for a dismissal, "because there isn't enough proof."
Only cynics, perhaps, will observe that we stand barely a year from the next presidential election, and Nicolas Sarkozy will need the entirety of the Gaullist party, nostalgic Chiraquiens and all, squarely behind him in what will be a tight race.
For another, the 6'3" beer-drinking, calf's head scoffing, larger-than-life bon vivant the French always had a soft spot for is suddenly rumoured to be "frail", "ailing", and suffering from Alzheimer's – rumours which Chirac and his high-profile wife, Bernadette, have carefully denied in targeted public statements. (That's officially what the special chair and lectern and side room near the courthouse are all about.)
This should be enough to ensure, in the worst-case scenario, a suspended sentence.
Never mind that only two weeks ago Chirac couldn't bear to miss the Paris yearly Agricultural Show, which he has faithfully visited on opening day for the past four decades, whether in office or out.
There he was mobbed by the crowds, basking in the admiration and love of tens of thousands of his favourite constituents, French farmers, who feel nobody has or will ever fight their corner as fiercely again. Nicolas Sarkozy is usually booed at the Salon de l'Agriculture.
It is ironic that the trial should take place barely one week after one of Chirac's protégés, Michèle Alliot-Marie, was sacked from her job as foreign minister merely for having accepted free flights from a relative of Tunisia's just-deposed strongman, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. (It is even more amusing that she should be replaced by none other than Alain Juppé, who at the time of his sentencing, for the same facts Jacques Chirac is now being tried for, was said to be bitter at having to carry the can for persons unnamed.)
In the last a couple of years, the climate in France has become starkly intolerant of corruption, extra perks, dodgy political financing and the like.
The public used not bat an eyelid at secret second families housed and guarded at the Republic's expense (François Mitterrand's), lavish holidays paid by exotic tycoons in five-star palaces (Mitterrand, Chirac), gifts of diamonds by megalomaniac African tyrants (Valéry Giscard d'Estaing), secret state funds re-routed to political campaigns (everyone's, even staid, Calvinist Socialist PM Lionel Jospin), not to mention a comfortable blurring of the private and public use of what must surely be the loveliest official real estate in the world, all the aristocratic palaces of France's nobility, complete with their furniture and artworks, turned into ministerial offices and grace-and-favour homes.
A combination of the economic crisis, Nicolas Sarkozy's perceived love of bling, and the globalisation of political sensitivities has made French politicians' life less comfortable of late.
One minister was recently sacked because he charged his office for €12,000 worth of Cuban cigars. (And he had to pay for the cigars.)
Another was a victim of an early reshuffle because she'd lent her grace-and-favour flat to her unemployed brother for one month. Yet another lost his job after favouring private planes over scheduled flights.
Besides the ousting of various strongmen, the Arab spring claims as collateral damage the reputation of a number of French politicos, as week after week their holidays with this or that tyrant are being made public.
What is perhaps surprising is the Teflon-like popularity of Jacques Chirac even today.
The French are largely aware that in or out of office, Chirac never paid for a luxury holiday in his life (in Morocco, in Oman, at the luxurious Hôtel du Cap-Eden Roc on the Riviera, as guest of the luxury tycoon and Gucci owner François Pinault in his St Tropez compound.)
They know Chirac was proven to have spent some €4,000 a day in "entertaining and food expenses" when he was Paris Mayor. They know the Chiracs have been living rent-free since they left the Elysée palace in 2007 in a luxurious 4,300 square foot Paris flat on the Seine, 3 Quai Voltaire, just opposite the Louvre, "loaned" by the family of Lebanon's slain PM, Rafik Hariri. But apparently, they don't care.
However strange it may seen, Chirac, who is the scion of a provincial industrialist, married to the aristocratic daughter of an early De Gaulle supporter, and whose constituency home is a 17th century château he had listed in the early 70s to make its maintenance tax-deductible, is seen as having the common touch, being one of the people.
His second term as president was marked by strikes and rising unpopularity, but now that Nicolas Sarkozy's poll numbers have sunk even lower than his ever did, he is considered fondly by Right and Left alike.
The former regret his more consensual style. The latter give him credit for opposing the Iraq war from the start.
All things considered, he can go to court on Tuesday with serenity – nothing, not even a judicial rap on the fingers, can seemingly change his reputation.
© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2011