A French judge questioned former President Jacques Chirac for more than 4 hours yesterday in an investigation into a party financing scandal that dates to his time as mayor of Paris, his lawyer said.
It was the first time a French president has undergone questioning under such conditions, and marks a sobering point in Chirac's four-decade political career.
The party financing investigation is the most potent of a string of potential legal problems the 74-year-old Chirac faces now that he no longer has presidential immunity. It remains unclear whether Chirac, who turned over power to Nicolas Sarkozy in May, will ever be tried in this or other legal cases implicating him.
Chirac was questioned as a material witness in his Paris offices by investigating Judge Alain Philibeaux, said Chirac's lawyer Jean Veil, who was also present. The questioning started at 9:15 am and ended at 1:30 pm.
"The former head of state explained himself very completely, very calmly, in a climate of great courtesy and simplicity," Veil told reporters outside Chirac's building afterward.
The judge has been waiting for years to talk to Chirac himself about how much he knew about the financing scandal, which has already targeted several former colleagues of Chirac's.
The investigation concerns a fake jobs scheme used to finance Chirac's conservative party RPR while he was mayor of Paris, from 1977-95. He was president from 1995 until May 16.
Investigators say RPR operatives were illegally on the Paris city payroll in a scheme to help finance the party, and that the equivalent of millions of euros (dollars) in salaries and fees were doled out.
The RPR, or Rally for the Republic, was later replaced by the UMP, or Union for a Popular Movement, which now dominates parliament and Sarkozy's government.
Philibeaux's investigation turned up a 1993 letter in which Chirac requested a raise for a secretary who was paid by City Hall - but who actually worked at party headquarters.
Former Prime Minister Alain Juppe, a close Chirac ally, was convicted in the case in 2004 and given a 14-month suspended prison sentence and a yearlong ban from politics.
Under French law, a material witness falls between a simple witness and a suspect. The material witness is not formally under investigation and has the right to a lawyer during questioning, but can later face charges if investigating magistrates find "serious or concordant signs" of an infraction or a crime.
Source: China Daily/agencies