Jacques Chirac, former French president, has just received a two-year prison sentence for corruption. He wasn’t in court. His lawyers pleaded that he is 79 and a most important person but unfortunately bad at remembering. The prosecution went so far as to ask for his acquittal. The court’s sentence was suspended, so justice has not caught up with Chirac.
French presidents, it is true, have their own standards. Valery Giscard d’Estaing accepted diamonds from the murderous Emperor Bokassa. Francois Mitterand was caught in an illegal deal involving an oil refinery in East Germany. Nicolas Sarkozy is accused of being mixed up in an arms deal with Pakistan, and French voters think he may well have set up the sex scandal that destroyed his political opponent Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
Chirac beats them all hands down. He was in the habit of appropriating public money for private or political party ends. Thousands of properties in Paris are unclaimed because in the war their Jewish owners were deported and murdered, and Chirac made sure that selected cronies could live cheaply in these apartments or houses. One day Chirac was discovered at the Gazelle d’Or, a fabulously expensive hotel in Morocco, paying the bill out of a plastic bag containing hundreds of thousands of dollars. It then turned out that French presidents were allocated funds for which they do not have to account. Nobody ever quite got to the bottom of how some fields around Chirac’s country house were due to be developed as a holiday site for children but instead were transferred to Chirac. Giscard d’Estaing is on record saying that if Chirac was caught holding a pot of jam and with his mouth full of that jam, he would swear that he had never eaten the stuff. Perhaps Chirac’s greatest coup was to get through a resolution that no president could be prosecuted for anything while in office. Which meant that he would do anything, no matter how cynical or misjudged, to cling to office. It says a lot about the French way of doing things that he’s got away with just two years, suspended.