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Chirac dogged by corruption scandal

PARIS, France (CNN) -- As he presides over the crucial European Union summit in Nice, French President Jacques Chirac could be excused for having other matters on his mind.

Chirac has not commented on slush fund investigations that might involve his party
Chirac has not commented on slush fund investigations that might involve his party  

In the past few weeks, there has been a series of revelations of large-scale corruption cases involving building contracts in Paris, dating back to the time when Chirac was mayor of the French capital.

The question on everyone's lips in Paris is: how much did Chirac know of the shady deals?

From 1977 to his election as president in 1995, Chirac was the chief executive in the palatial town hall in the heart of Paris. With a budget of the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars, the post of mayor has traditionally been one of considerable political and fiscal power -- not just in the city but also in national politics.

One reason for this is that the post is often a stepping stone to greater political office. Chirac also furthered his political ambitions by founding his own centre-right political party, the RPR.

At issue in the scandal is how Chirac's party funded itself.

Investigations into suspected illegal financial matters began several years ago. The investigations have already revealed that there were payments for work or posts that never existed, cheap housing deals for party members, friends and relatives and, more dramatically, a huge alleged bribery scam.

Earlier this year, a former official in the RPR and close collaborator while Chirac was mayor of Paris, added his voice to the allegations -- posthumously.

Jean-Claude Mery video-taped a series of potentially explosive allegations before dying of cancer in 1999. The tape was released to the French media in September this year.

On this video, Mery claims he helped raise millions of dollars worth of party funds. He also says that, on one occasion, Chirac himself was present when the equivalent of $700,000 in cash was handed over to one of his aides.

Mery was released from prison on medical grounds after having served a few months on corruption charges.

Now another former close aide to Chirac, Michel Roussin, has spent a few nights in prison on suspicion of having managed the same illegal fund-raising scam.

At the heart of the scheme, according to investigators, was the selling of lucrative contracts by the town hall's building commissioners. Much of the work was for the construction or repairs of schools in the capital. Billions of francs were involved, investigators say.

Tenders were "invited" to contribute to a slush fund, which was used to finance RPR activities.

Chirac, while not necessarily directly involved, must have been aware of what was happening in his town hall, observers say.

However, the president has kept silent on the whole scandal, saying he wants to concentrate on the EU summit now underway.

Contrary to what some people might think, the opposition Socialist Party is not having a field day over the scandal.

The party of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin has also been implicated in the financial scandal. But despite a call from one Socialist member of parliament to impeach the president, party leaders, including Jospin himself, have preferred not to comment.



RELATED STORIES:
Strauss-Kahn denies giving tax break for Chirac video
September 26, 2000
French finance minister resigns over scandal
November 2, 1999

RELATED SITES:
French President's Office
Prime Minister's Office

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