Judges debate Chirac sleaze row
PARIS, France -- France's highest court is meeting to debate whether sleaze allegations against President Jacques Chirac can be investigated.
Nineteen judges sat at Paris's Cour de Cassation on Friday to decide to what extent French heads of state may benefit from immunity while in office.
Their ruling, the first such given by the court in France's 43-year-old Fifth Republic, will be delivered on October 10 and could dictate whether Chirac runs for re-election next year.
Chirac, 68, has so far refused to be questioned by anti-corruption investigators probing allegations centred on his period in office as Paris mayor from 1977-1995.
The president said in a state of the nation address on July 14 he had nothing to hide and rejected the allegations.
Senior prosecutor Regis de Gouttes told a brief initial hearing on Friday that Chirac's immunity to questioning while in office was a fundamental pillar of the constitution.
"It is in the general interest that the President of the Republic is accorded this judicial privilege: that of assuring the continuity of state, the dignity of the office of president and the principle of the separation of powers," he said.
In advice to the court given earlier this week, De Gouttes said the president could only be quizzed with his consent, under arrangements "respecting the dignity of his office," and on matters where he is not implicated.
'September 11 effect'
In the opposite camp, Guy Lesourd, lawyer for a member of the public who brought the suit, said the head of state should be open to pursuit because the French constitution guarantees that everyone is equal in the eyes of the law.
"You would be ridding the presidential office of its divine mask, handing it back a human face -- perhaps all too human," Lesourd argued.
He noted that there was no question of judges not pursuing other members of the executive, including cabinet ministers, because of the principle of separation of powers.
If the court backs Chirac's immunity claim, he could in theory only be questioned by the High Court of Justice, a parliamentary body. Analysts say that in practice the sleaze factor would pose no risk to Chirac in the election run-up.
Polls surveying French voters' preferred candidate for the Elysee Palace next year show Chirac neck-and-neck with Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, his expected left-wing challenger.
Approval ratings for both men have risen since the attacks on the United States but Chirac, as head of state and commander of the country's army, appears to have benefited more from the "September 11 effect."
In public, Jospin has held back from playing the sleaze card against Chirac -- unlike some of his fellow socialists.
Maverick leftwing deputy Arnaud Montebourg, who has launched a petition to impeach Chirac, said the arguments presented on Friday against Chirac's immunity were overwhelming.
"I can't wait for the October 10 ruling," he told reporters. Montebourg has so far gained only around half of the deputies' signatures he needs to launch impeachment proceedings.
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