Chirac rejects corruption claims
PARIS, France (CNN) -- French President Jacques Chirac has struck back at allegations of corruption during his time as mayor of Paris.
For two weeks claims that Chirac and his family had used 2.4 million francs ($320,000) of public money to pay for lavish trips between 1992 and 1995 have swirled around the Elysee Palace.
But in Saturday's live televised interview with three journalists to mark the country's most important national holiday, Bastille Day, Chirac said he had never accepted free trips and had often paid for flights in cash for reasons of "discretion and security."
"It was all perfectly legal there are bills, invoices for everything. That's how I traced them. They were paid for from my personal salary."
While declining to provide figures or examples, Chirac said all the trips involved were undertaken for professional reasons or in some cases by people who were unknown to him.
"I'm astonished at the exorbitant figures being mentioned. There are some trips which neither me nor my families were on, others where it was my colleagues who paid, not me."
He denounced what he called a climate of "suspicion, rumour and manipulation" saying it was damaging democracy and French interests.
Several times Chirac -- elected mayor of Paris from 1977 to1992; prime minister from 1974 to 1976 and again from 1986 to 1988 and president in 1995 - repeated "I have nothing to hide."
He denied the money came from secret public funds distributed to ministries across Paris.
Going on the offensive he said that such funds, used in part to reward civil servants for hard work, were a political "tradition" but the system now required reform.
"It's a tradition and not a good one. Times have changed. I wanted to freeze the cash funds, distribute them by cheque instead maybe. But the prime minister didn't agree."
This is a dig at Socialist premier Lionel Jospin, who is expected to challenge Chirac in next spring's presidential race.
No charges have been filed over the allegations and Chirac has refused to appear before a magistrate citing presidential immunity. He says allowing such questioning would undermine respect for the office.
The questioning of his daughter Claude Chirac -- one of his top advisers -- last week was "scandalous," said Chirac, adding that all the trips she had been questioned about were for professional reasons with one to Kenya, being a country she had never visited.
CNN's Peter Humi says Chirac was known as a political survivor and may well survive such a "whiff of scandal."
He is expected to run again for president next year. If he wins that race his presidential immunity would continue but if he loses investigators may have the opportunity to question, or charge, him.
Chirac's popularity appears to have slipped only marginally with an opinion poll issued this week, but conducted before the most recent developments in the travel scandal, showed far more people wanted to hear his views on security, unemployment and the recent economic downturn than on his legal tangles.
In Saturday's interview Chirac also said that the decision by the International Olympic Committee to award Beijing the 2008 games -- over a bid by Paris -- should encourage China to improve its record on democracy.
"I if were to make a wish, it would be that on the occasion of this great opening to the world by China and Beijing (the Games) will be a determining factor in encouraging progress towards real democracy and a real respect for the individual," he said.
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