Image: Jacques Chirac
Thibault Camus  /  AP
Former French President Jacques Chirac leaves his office in Paris, on Monday. A Paris court on Tuesday suspended for months a corruption trial in which the 78-year-old former French president is the star defendant so that France's high court can examine a last-ditch appeal by another defendant.
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updated 3/8/2011 2:20:13 PM ET 2011-03-08T19:20:13

Years in the making, Jacques Chirac's day in court will have to wait a bit longer.

A Paris court on Tuesday suspended for months a corruption trial in which the 78-year-old former French president is the star defendant so that France's high court can examine a last-ditch appeal by another defendant.

The ruling quickly sparked a guessing game about when — if ever — the consummate political survivor will face the gavel over the only two scandals to go to trial among the many that dogged Chirac during his 45-year political career. Both the legal and political calendars could further delay any resumption.

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The trial, which opened Monday, centers on Chirac's time as mayor of Paris from 1977 to 1995, before he became president. He enjoyed immunity from prosecution during his subsequent 12 years as head of state.

The two different investigations were combined into one trial, both focusing on claims that Chirac and his allies misappropriated city money for jobs benefiting his conservative political party. Chirac has repeatedly denied wrongdoing.

A lawyer for one of Chirac's co-defendants — his former chief-of-staff Remy Chardon — argued that one complaint was filed too long ago to merit a trial today, and the combination of the two cases wasn't constitutional.

Judge Dominique Pauthe on Tuesday ruled that France's highest court, the Court of Cassation, should decide if that argument merits consideration by France's Constitutional Council.

Because the high court has up to three months to decide, Pauthe delayed the proceedings until June 20, when it will set a date for the trial to resume.

That date will depend on lawyers' availability and — possibly — an unwritten rule in French jurisprudence that politicians shouldn't be tried during an electoral campaign. France's presidential and legislative elections are planned for next year.

While Chirac has retired from day-to-day politics, he remains a huge presence in the political landscape. The party of Nicolas Sarkozy, Chirac's successor as president, has its roots in the political machine that Chirac built.

Chirac is the first former French head of state to go on trial since Marshal Philippe Petain, the leader of the collaborationist regime in World War II, was convicted of treason and shipped into exile.

Chirac himself was not present in court Tuesday.

Some foes said the ruling could play into the hands of France's resurgent far-right, which has long decried the country's alleged "two-track" justice system: one for the powerful, another for everybody else.

As Communist lawmaker Roland Muzeau put it, Chirac "has been promoted to the rank of untouchable," adding, "He is yet again protected and spared from having to explain himself."

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Chirac lawyer Georges Kiejman said the former president had intended to attend Wednesday so that he could start making his case.

"Jacques Chirac's defense team never wanted to put this trial off indefinitely," Kiejman said. "In a way, Jacques Chirac will be disappointed that he cannot express himself tomorrow."

Lawyers hoping to bring Chirac to trial predicted the delay spelled trouble for their case.

"Jacques Chirac is once again going to escape the justice system," said Jerome Karsenti, lawyer for an anti-corruption association that was perhaps the leading civil party to the case.

On trial with Chirac are two of his former chiefs-of-staff at City Hall and seven others said to have benefited improperly from the graft.

The case is but one of an array of scandals that have hounded Chirac over his years as mayor — including claims that he and his family improperly ate some €2.1 million worth of food from 1987 to 1995 at the city's expense. Those cases were all thrown out either for a lack of evidence or because they had surpassed the statute of limitations.

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Pierre-Antoine Souchard and Cecile Brisson contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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