Facebook Twitter

Chirac refuses to testify

He says funds for trips were ‘perfectly legal’

SHARE Chirac refuses to testify

PARIS — French President Jacques Chirac insisted Saturday he has "nothing to hide" from judges looking into cash payments for trips when he was mayor but said he does not have to testify and will refuse to take the stand if called.

In a live TV interview marking Bastille Day, Chirac said the payments for plane tickets for himself, his family and entourage were "perfectly legal" and were made with cash from special funds for "reasons of discretion and security."

Chirac went on the offensive in his first public comments on the allegations, calling for a freeze on most of the so-called "secret funds" and striking out at investigating judges for the "scandalous" treatment of his family. He said that because he is president, he does not have to testify in the scandal.

"The president of the republic is not a citizen like other French people," Chirac said. "Imagine, for a moment, that because of a complaint filed by anyone . . . a judge could prevent the president of the republic from performing his functions in serenity and freedom."

The 68-year-old president has repeatedly invoked presidential immunity and refused to answer judges' questions about alleged illicit slush funds at city hall during his 18-year tenure there.

The three judges investigating the spending are debating whether to summon Chirac as a witness. Prosecutors are publicly divided over whether the president can legally be called to testify.

Chirac said the trips, some for government purposes and some private, were financed from the special funds, which he had access to as prime minister from 1986-1988. The tickets at the center of the scandal were bought in 1992-95, when Chirac was still mayor of Paris but no longer prime minister. The newspaper Le Monde reported Sunday that the amount paid for the trips was about $320,000, about the same as originally estimated by judges. Chirac said he was "stupefied" by the amounts reported by the media, but he offered no figure of his own.

Le Monde quoted an aide to Chirac, Maurice Ulrich, as testifying that Chirac was entitled to use the funds as prime minister and that when he became mayor, Chirac had money from the funds at City Hall, where it was kept in a safe.

The system of "secret funds" has been in place since 1946. It is generally known to pay costs associated with secret service but also pays bonuses for ministers and staff.

Asked about allegations the money may have come from other, illicit sources, such as kickbacks he is accused of receiving while serving as mayor, Chirac said the question was "obviously essential to the investigation" — but he did not directly answer it.

"I have nothing to hide," said Chirac. He denounced what he called "rumors and manipulation" and said the scandal was hurting democracy in France and the country's image overseas, as well as his family.

Chirac's daughter, Claude, who is one of his top advisers, was called to testify about the trips before judges last week. News reports have said that his wife, Bernadette, would be called next.

"My wife and daughter have been profoundly disturbed by this, and I too have been deeply hurt," said Chirac.

The revelations have set the tone for what could be a nasty campaign for next year's presidential election. The conservative president is expected to face Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, but neither has declared his candidacy.

The interview came after Chirac hosted a Bastille Day parade on the Champs-Elysees, usually a high point of the year for the head of state.

But a driving rain hampered the parade, which Chirac reviewed with his guest of honor, King Juan Carlos of Spain, and the traditional flyover by military jets was canceled due to heavy fog. The holiday was upstaged by his long-awaited comments on the corruption case.