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Graft trials of partymen erode Chirac's popularity

By Vaiju Naravane

PARIS, FEB. 19. The French President, Jacques Chirac's popularity has begun to slip following a series of corruption trials in which several members of his party, Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), were found guilty of large-scale embezzlement and fraud. Not least of them was the former Prime Minister and current party leader, Alain Juppe, who was declared ineligible for public office for 10 years.

In the most recent corruption trial, a Paris court found the former Defence Minister, Francois Leotard, and the spokesman for the UMP, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, guilty of illegal party funding and money laundering.

Mr. Leotard was accused of using a fake bank scheme in 1995 to inject money into his now-defunct Republican Party and was given a 10-month suspended jail sentence. Mr. de Vabres was fined 15,000 euros for helping conceal the fraud while he was Mr. Leotard's Cabinet chief.

In the months following the U.S. decision to invade Iraq, Mr. Chirac's popularity was as high as 82 per cent. With unemployment and economic woes on the rise, his popularity rating has been slipping steadily and now hovers at just 47 per cent, according to a survey carried out by the Louis Harris firm for the Paris daily Liberation.

Mr. Chirac has thus slipped over six points since the last survey a few months ago.

Another poll, released by the Ipsos Institute, showed a similar slide of seven points, to 51 per cent.

Ironically, the guilty verdict against Mr. Juppe has not affected him but has had an adverse impact on Mr. Chirac. Pollsters say this is logical, given that most people believe Mr. Juppe has consistently shielded Mr. Chirac, who is protected from prosecution by his presidential immunity.

Mr. Chirac has been deeply implicated in the scandal, which goes back to the time when he was Mayor of Paris, but he has escaped legal scrutiny thus far thanks to his presidential immunity.

The latest convictions threaten to drag the Chirac camp down in regional elections taking place next month.

Mr. Chirac is especially worried about a takeover by the immensely popular Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy.

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