Chirac’s Get Out of Jail Free Card

The moment Jacques Chirac left office as President of France, he also left behind its immunities to civil and criminal prosecution. But one group of his supporters lobbied to change the constitution to put their champion beyond the reach of the law forever.

In 2001, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Mandelson, was ejected from the British cabinet for ringing up his opposite number in the Home Office to enquire about a business friend’s application for citizenship. In 2002 US Senator Trent Lott was hurriedly obliged to resign as Senate Majority Leader after making congratulatory remarks at the 100th birthday party of an elderly racist colleague. 

Such are the casualties of politics in almost every liberal political democracy. The slightest shade of sleaze can be fatal for a politician. In France, the supporters of President Chirac regard it not only as a plus but are lobbying to change the constitution so their patron can never be touched by the law again.

In 2002, Jacques Chirac swept back into power after the second round of the French presidential elections gave him 82% of the popular vote, thrashing his National Front opponent, Jean Marie Le Pen. On the streets, Chirac’s breezy unofficial election slogan was: “Vote for the crook, not the racist.”

Allegations of chicanery pursued Chirac throughout his career. In February 2004, the former Prime Minister, Alain Juppé was convicted of illegal party-financing high-jinks. Unusually in France, his position as serving mayor of Bordeaux and president of the ruling UMP political party did not help him. The sentence, intimated the presiding judge, would have been more severe except that evidence showed that the guiding genius behind the fraud had not been Juppé at all, but the man for whom he worked at the time, the then mayor of Paris. 

Between 1977 and 1995, Chirac was mayor of Paris. Chirac’s uniquely enriching career enabled this son of a bank clerk to take his ease in any one of his many properties including an agreeable 16th-century chateau in Correze. During his stint as mayor, Chirac set up his own political party, the RPR, (Rassemblement pour la République, Rally for the Republic) to provide him with a powerbase against his old mentor-turned-rival Valéry Giscard D’Estaing and his UDR party (Union des Démocrates pour la République, Union of Democrats for the Republic).

Setting up political parties costs money and Chirac was not choosy about how he got it. Amongst much evidence currently untested in any judicial court is a notorious video secretly filmed by businessman Jean-Claude Méry, now dead. It details the kickback schemes he operated in the Paris region thanks to a 5 million franc payment he personally made in cash to Jacques Chirac.

So long as he remained president, none of this mattered. In 1999, the Conseil Constitutionnel (Constitutional Court) ruled that a serving president enjoys total immunity from any kind of civil or criminal prosecution. On that basis, he flatly refused to testify before Eric Halphen, the investigating magistrate looking into the massive frauds that had rocked the City of Paris during Chirac’s tenure as mayor. He argued that testifying would be “incompatible with his presidential function”.

However, another ruling by another French court was not so helpful to Chirac. On 10 October 2001, the Cour de cassation (Court of Last Resort) decided that while the president cannot be prosecuted by normal judicial means during his mandate, immunity ceases the moment he is out of office. 

So, in January 2005, his parliamentary supporters lobbied for Chirac to be given a unique position in French politics after his retirement from the presidency, senator-for-life. A French senator, after all, is immune to any kind of prosecution. It was a sly ploy and had been brought into play with equal slyness. Because, you see, this proposal, said its supporters, was not about President Chirac at all, but about former President Giscard d’Estaing. 

Under Article 56 of the 1958 French Constitution, all former presidential incumbents (there have only been five in the French 5th Republic) are automatically given a seat on the Conseil Constitutionnel after they leave office. It is largely an honorary position and comes with no political powers, let alone immunities.

The new proposal, which required a change to the country's constitution ratified by national referendum, was promoted by Senator Patrice Gelard, a leading Chirac supporter. Gelard said that his measure was primarily aimed at Giscard D'Estaing who was frustrated by the rules of strict neutrality that he was obliged to observe as a member of the constitutional council and wanted greater freedom to speak out. 

"It's not a question of any particular individual. But it seems to me incongruous that a former president such as Giscard should be forced to submit to a rule of non-interference in public debate," he said. "It seems perfectly normal that he should be able to share his ideas on any number of subjects. The question of the European constitution is the prime example.” he said. 

On 15 December 2011, the Paris court declared him guilty of diverting public funds and abusing public confidence, and gave Chirac a two-year suspended prison sentence.



In 2002 incumbent Paris mayor, Socialist Bertrand Delanoe, filed a civil complaint about Chirac's huge food bills during his tenure in the Hotel de Ville. The affair was dubbed Applegate after journalists worked out that Chirac’s personal grocery bill meant they could have afforded 100 kilos (220 lb) of apples a day. Audits revealed Chirac and his wife spent 2.2 million euros on wine and food for private consumption (not official dining) between 1987 and 1995, more than half of it in cash. It also revealed 1.4 million euros in cash was given to the Chirac’s personal cooks without any control. The audit pointed to bills which had been paid several times and others which appeared to be for fictitious items. 


While he was mayor of Paris, Chirac made a string of lavish trips around the world. In 2001, a committee of deputies from the Office of the National Assembly (the parliament’s regulatory body) handed over data regarding the financing of these jaunts to investigating magistrates. Chirac refused to be questioned about this ''Travelgate'' scandal, maintaining that the money came from "special funds," a discretionary salary top-up, which is reported to have never appeared as income in any tax declaration. He has also refused to discuss the source of these “special funds”.


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