Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Stormy Days for France's Leader ; Chirac Spoke to the Media Saturday about a Scandal, but Refuses to Testify in Court

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Stormy Days for France's Leader ; Chirac Spoke to the Media Saturday about a Scandal, but Refuses to Testify in Court

Article excerpt

Pouring rain put a damper on celebrations marking Bastille Day, France's Fourth of July, on Saturday.

But the annual parade on the Champs Elysees had already been upstaged. The real fireworks came in a live TV interview President Jacques Chirac gave afterward - the first time the embattled leader has spoken publicly on a scandal involving cash payments for luxury vacations taken in the early 1990's, while Mr. Chirac was mayor of Paris.

"I have nothing to hide," a combative Chirac told three television interviewers. "I paid for the trips with my personal money."

Defending the purchases as "perfectly legal," he said he would refuse to testify if called, and warned that a mounting judicial investigation threatens France's constitutional separation of powers as well the country's international image.

Like the Watergate and Lewinsky scandals in the US, the case is testing presidential immunity in France. The latest in a series of scandals here, it is also fueling demands for more accountability - and the end to a decades-old practice of cash handouts for top officials. And it may threaten Chirac's chances for reelection next year.

In the hourlong interview, Chirac denied using secret government funds or illicit contributions to pay for some 20 private trips between 1992 and 1995 for himself, his family, and close associates. He said cash was used for reasons of "discretion and security."

Last fall, Chirac faced allegations that, while he was mayor of Paris, his office received millions of dollars in kickbacks from construction companies for lucrative public-works contracts. The money supposedly was channeled to major political parties, including Chirac's Rally for the Republic.

"When one talks about 50 or 60 million francs ($7 million or $8 million) that wind up in the pockets of a political party, it doesn't mean much to the average person, it's just political life," says Dominique Paille, a conservative lawmaker. "This is different. Every Frenchman knows the cost of a weekend, a plane ticket, or a night in a hotel."

While Chirac on Saturday rejected the amount cited in the press - $312,000 - he declined to name his own tally on the cost of the trips in question. …

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