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Holiday scandal spells trouble for Chirac

Chirac and daughter
Claude Chirac has already been questioned, but her father has diplomatic immunity  


By CNN's Peter Humi

PARIS, France (CNN) -- As the French will tell you, everyone is entitled to a holiday -- even politicians.

But not at the taxpayer's expense, or funded by kickbacks for local government contracts.

Now, an investigating magistrate is gathering evidence to see if President Jacques Chirac and his family did either of those things in the years immediately before he was elected president in 1995.

In question is cash allegedly paid for private trips from 1992 to 1995, totalling as much as 2.4 million francs ($320,000).

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Olivier Duhamel, a socialist member of the European Parliament, said: "We don't know how much -- we don't know where from. If this happened in the United States of America, we would probably have the beginning of an impeachment process."

Presidential immunity has so far kept Chirac out of the witness stand over other allegations of corruption when he was mayor of Paris.

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That same immunity means he won't have to give evidence in this investigation either.

But police have interviewed Claude Chirac, the president's daughter and political adviser.

Sources told French media the focus of investigators' questions was on two trips, one to New York, the other to Kenya.

Chirac's daughter reportedly told the magistrates the trip to New York was business, and that she was not involved in any trip to Kenya.

Secret, but legal, funds are part and parcel of French government -- every ministry in Paris receives a regular injection of cash to pay employee bonuses and overtime.

Even the office of the prime minister, a post Chirac held twice in the 1970s and 1980s is known to have a large cash account.

Conservative MP Henri Plagnol said: "It's also cash to give complementary pay to high civil servants or ministers or prime ministers.

"Politicians are badly paid in France. Chirac has a right like anybody to use those funds if he collected them, for anything he wants."

Top aides confirm Chirac will confront the allegations head-on in what they call a "frank and combative" manner during the president's traditional Bastille Day address to the nation on Saturday.

Whatever Chirac has to say for himself, the latest allegations are likely to further damage his already battered reputation.

Nonetheless, Chirac is expected to run for re-election in next year's presidential race.

If he loses, he will also lose his immunity, and then could end up facing charges of corruption and misuse of public funds.






RELATED STORIES:
• Chirac's daughter quizzed
July 11, 2001
• Chirac rejects court summons
March 28, 2001
• Chirac dogged by corruption claims
December 6, 2000
• Chirac in dispute with judiciary
March 29, 2001

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• Office of the French President

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