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Judges rule out questioning Chirac

President Chirac
Chirac has denied any wrongdoing  

PARIS, France -- The pressure on Jacques Chirac eased after Paris magistrates ruled that the French President will not be questioned about alleged bribes.

Chirac had faced claims that he and his family had used 2.4 million francs ($320,000) of public money to pay for lavish trips between 1992 and 1995 when he was the mayor of Paris.

However, three magistrates conceded on Tuesday they did not have the legal authority to question Chirac, legal sources told Reuters news agency.

Magistrates Marc Brisset-Foucault, Armand Riberolles and Renaud Van Ruymbeke said on Tuesday that questioning Chirac would run counter to a 1999 Constitutional Court ruling that placed the onus on parliament to prosecute a serving president rather than the judiciary.

Under the constitution, a French president cannot be prosecuted by a regular court, but only by the special High Court of Justice. The court, made up of parliamentarians, hears cases of officials suspected of committing offences while in office.

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Chirac had already ruled out testifying, citing presidential immunity.

Paris Prosecutor Jean-Pierre Dintilhac said two weeks ago he wanted the president called in as a witness in the case, which centres on suspect cash payments.

While Chirac maintains the money came from state coffers, magistrates have tried to link the cash to alleged bribes paid by building companies to Paris town hall in return for public work contracts.

The magistrates said in a written report that summoning Chirac as a witness would be tantamount to charging him with a crime -- something they believed the constitution did not allow, Reuters said.

Legal sources said Dintilhac would appeal against their decision.

Dintilhac wanted Chirac summoned as an "assisted witness" -- an intermediary stage between being a simple witness and being placed under formal investigation ahead of criminal charges.

The 68-year-old president, preparing for a re-election bid next year, has denied any wrongdoing in the case.

In a weekend television interview, Chirac said the actual sums involved were much lower than those mentioned and insisted that the bank notes he had used to pay for plane tickets were legal.

Last week the magistrates questioned Chirac's daughter about the luxury trips. They have also talked to a number of his aides, including his former chauffeur.

Earlier this year a French judge shelved his investigation into suspected corruption at Paris town hall while Chirac was mayor because of the 1999 ruling.

Judge Eric Halphen was quoted as saying in April that he had "plausible evidence" Chirac had been involved in corruption but could do nothing about it because of presidential immunity, Reuters said.

• French President

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