Jacques Chirac tomorrow is set to become the first past or serving French President to go on trial for corruption, in a case that will test the judicial system's will to probe and prosecute in top-level political scandals.
Chirac, on trial with nine others, could face up to 10 years in jail, €150,000 ($330,400) in fines and a 10-year ban on holding public office if convicted. But there is doubt that Chirac will be punished or even called to the dock, and the former President has said he would not bother to attend the trial's opening day. "We should rejoice that a technically complex and politically overloaded case is progressing towards a conclusion," the influential news website Rue89.com said. It warned: "There has been no shortage of time-wasting manoeuvres, and others are still possible."
Chirac, 78, is one of France's most experienced and, many would say, wiliest politicians. His affable and avuncular style is popular with a public disillusioned by his blunt and hyperactive successor, Nicolas Sarkozy. These days, he rarely appears in public except in the role of grand old man of politics - for example, to glad-hand farmers and pat cows at the annual Agricultural Show in Paris - and there are rumours, channelled through the conservative press, that he has Alzheimer's.
Chirac was a two-term President, from 1995-2007, served twice as Prime Minister in the 1970s and 80s and was Mayor of Paris from 1977-1995 - and it is this 18-year tenure as boss of the capital that has come back to haunt him.
In essence, Chirac is accused of running city hall as a personal fiefdom and booster for his RPR party.
During this time, according to press investigations, the electoral roll was stuffed with RPR supporters and the party siphoned off municipal funds and extorted payments from companies that won municipal contracts.
Chirac and his wife Bernadette ran up €15 million a year in expenses and had free air tickets and enjoyed luxury hotel accommodation which they paid in cash, according to these sources.
But these controversies were either never fully investigated, exceeded the statute of limitations or failed to gain legal traction because files went missing or Chirac gained immunity from prosecution while he was President.
Just a single accusation - that he gave supporters fictitious jobs on the city payroll - remains. The scandal led to the conviction in 2004 of Chirac's lieutenant, Alain Juppe. He was given a 14-month suspended sentence and a 12-month bar from political office, but is now Foreign Minister.
The pressure on Chirac, though, has eased, because the charge sheet covers only 28 fake jobs, out of hundreds that were allegedly created. And Paris City Hall, under Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, a Socialist, withdrew last September as civilian plaintiff after receiving €2.2 million in compensation from Chirac and from the RPR's successor, the UMP.
In addition, defence lawyers for one of the accused have filed a last-minute petition to have the case thrown out on technical grounds. They argue the trial is unconstitutional because it consolidates two batches of cases that had been addressed differently by separate judicial districts, one in Paris and the other in the suburb of Neuilly.
The court may rule swiftly on the petition or hand it to the Supreme Court of Appeal which in turn may ask the Constitutional Council, which rules on constitutional affairs, to deliver its verdict.
If so, the trial could be delayed by another six months - strengthening a likely defence argument that Chirac is too unwell to face trial - or even scuppered altogether.
Jerome Karsenti, a lawyer representing an anti-corruption NGO, Anticor, which is a civilian party in the case, blasted the petition as a time-wasting manoeuvre. "Every line of defence will be deployed to prevent truth coming to light and to create procedural obstacles to stop the trial taking place," he fumed.
Le Canard Enchaine said Chirac and his entourage had been playing a brilliant long game, ensuring over two decades that investigations would be held up, abandoned or lost in administrative limbo. "With the help of an indulgent prosecutor's office ... he prevented investigators from poking around, got evidence to disappear, encouraged witnesses to keep their silence and slowed down the work of the judges," the political weekly said. "Doing this was a full-time job. There was nothing fictitious about it."