The corruption trial of former French President Jacques Chirac kicked off today in Paris amid last-minute attempts to derail the trial on procedural grounds.
Chirac, who enjoyed immunity from prosecution as president from 1995 to 2007, is accused of masterminding a scheme under which funds were allegedly funneled from the city of Paris to pay people working for his party, then called RPR, while he served as mayor of the capital.
A second case that was merged with the first focuses on claims that city hall paid seven ghost employees for work that benefited Chirac's party during the same period.
Nine other people face trial alongside Chirac, who is scheduled to appear in court on March 8 to answer the judge's questions.
The 78-year-old ex-president has denied wrongdoing. But his lawyer Georges Kiejman, speaking to reporters today outside the courtroom, says his client was eager for the long-awaited trial to finally proceed.
"I think the president would like to get it over and done with," he said.
Chirac insists the expenses were approved by the city council and that the people employed in the jobs were all legitimate posts in the service of Paris.
If convicted, he could be sentenced to up to 10 years in jail and a fine of 150,000 euros ($210,000).
A prison term, however, is seen as highly unlikely considering his age and his enduring popularity.
A series of media reports has raised questions about Chirac's health, despite his assurances that he is well enough to stand trial. His wife has also dismissed rumors that he might have Alzheimer's disease as "a lie."
On March 6, he said he was "as well as can be."
The trial could actually be postponed for months due to a last-minute protest by a codefendant, former Chirac aide Remy Chardon, who argues that combining the two cases was unconstitutional.
A lawyer for another defendant says some of the accusations can no longer be heard since they date back too far in time.
Another element working in Chirac's favor is a deal struck last year with the Paris city hall under which Chirac and his party paid back 2.2 million euros (some $3 million) -- the estimated amount paid in the jobs related to the accusations. As a result, the city dropped its civil charges against Chirac and its representatives will not appear in court.
As a result, the plaintiffs suing Chirac and his alleged accomplices are now civil parties, including a group of Parisian taxpayers.
Frederik-Karel Canoy, a lawyer acting for one of the plaintiffs, says the nation is hoping for a free and fair trial that will not be influenced by Chirac's status.
"More than 70 percent of French people want to see this trial take place," Canoy says. "So we should not prevent it and it should not be a masquerade."
Whatever its outcome, the trial is an embarrassing blow to Chirac's vast political legacy and his recent philanthropic work.
He is the first former French head of state to face trial since Marshal Philippe Petain, who led France's Nazi collaborationist regime, was convicted of treason and exiled at the end of World War II.
Chirac's trial could also have uncomfortable repercussions for his successor and one-time protege, the unpopular Nicolas Sarkozy, who is keen to repair his image ahead of a possible reelection bid next year.
written by Claire Bigg, with agency reports