A Tale Of Money, Lies And Videotape?

Last week French President Jacques Chirac faced renewed allegations of corruption--from the grave. The daily Le Monde ran excerpts of a videotape made in 1996 by former aide Jean-Claude Mery, who died last year. On the tape, Mery details how he collected and distributed kickbacks from construction companies that won government housing contracts. In one part, he describes how in 1986 he handed 5 million francs to Chirac's chief of staff--with Chirac looking on. At the time, Chirac was not only mayor of Paris, but also prime minister.

Chirac denied all the charges, denouncing the "abracadabra history" in which "a dead man is made to talk after a year, and holds forth about events from 14 years ago." He suggested the affair was concocted by his political enemies. The pro-Gaullist newspaper Le Figaro called the accusations "the first stink bombs" in the campaign for presidential elections next year.

In fact, the stench from this posthumous confession taints French politicians of every stripe. Mery claimed that Chirac shared the kickbacks with his rival Communist and Socialist parties. Still, Chirac is safe for now. Mery's accusations probably won't stand up in a French court of law since he can't be cross-examined. And in France, a sitting president can't be prosecuted for anything except high treason. But Mery's account is so vivid and plausible that in the court of public opinion at least, the trial of Jacques Chirac may be hard to stop.

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