March 8, 2011 / 2:19 PM / in 8 years

French court postpones trial of ex-president Chirac

PARIS (Reuters) - The trial of former President Jacques Chirac over misuse of public funds was postponed by a French court Tuesday while it sought advice on a constitutional challenge that will hold the case up for months.

Former French President Jacques Chirac leaves his office in Paris, March 7, 2011, a few hours before the start of his corruption trial in Paris, which will be the first time a former head of state has been called on to appear before the courts in France. Chirac, president until 2007, is expected to attend the trial on Tuesday. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

The 78-year-old who ruled France for 12 years is accused of channeling public money into phantom jobs for political cronies while he was mayor of Paris between 1977 and 1995.

The court set a date of June 20 for the trial to reopen if it gets clearance from the country’s Constitutional Council, which has been asked say whether some of the alleged offences are too old to go to court.

Chirac was not present but would have been summoned to the courtroom Wednesday had Tuesday’s decision confirmed that the trial should proceed despite a challenge from lawyers of a co-defendant, who argued that much of the case was invalid under the French statute of limitations.

The long-awaited trial of Chirac and nine other defendants would be the first trial of a former French head of state since 1945.

Chirac, who remains a popular politician in France, stands accused of embezzling public money to fund his political party during his time as mayor of Paris before he became president.

He enjoyed immunity from prosecution during his two terms as president ending in 2007. The case has come to trial after 11 years of legal wrangling over allegations that 28 political cronies were on the city’s payroll from 1992 to 1995 although they did not work for the city.

Paris City Hall pulled out as a plaintiff earlier this year after Chirac agreed to a compensation deal worth 2.2 million euros — 500,000 euros of it to be paid by himself and the rest by France’s ruling UMP party on his behalf.

If found guilty, Chirac could theoretically be sentenced up to 10 years in prison and be ordered to pay 150,000 euros in fines. However, a suspended sentence is considered more likely in such an event.

A former French head of state has not faced criminal trial in France since the country’s leader under Nazi occupation, Philippe Petain, was found guilty of treason by a court in 1945 after the liberation.

Additional reporting by Vicky Buffery and Nicholas Vinocur; Writing by Leigh Thomas; Editing by Brian Love and Jon Boyle

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