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Juppé Conviction Casts Shadow over Chirac

If he fails to win an appeal of a conviction on corruption charges, French President Jacques Chirac's protégé Alain Juppé will be forcibly exiled from political life. And that spells trouble for Chirac's party.

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Former French Prime Minister Alain Juppé leads the conservative UMP party.

For years Alain Juppé has been seen as future successor to the political legacy of French President Jacques Chirac. But on Friday, a criminal court in Nanterre, a Parisian suburb, mixed up the political deck after convicting the former prime minister and current leader of Chirac's national party in a corruption scandal dating back to the when the two men worked together in Paris' city hall.

The three-judge court, led by Judge Catherine Pierce, slapped Juppé with an unexpectedly harsh 18-month suspended sentence and barred him from seeking public office for the next decade. The charges stemmed from shady employment practices in Paris' city hall which illegally placed members of Chirac's party into city hall jobs. At the time, Chirac was mayor of Paris and Juppé his deputy.

On Monday, Chirac stood firmly behind his protégé. "He is a politician of exceptional quality, of competence, of humanism, of honesty. France needs men of this quality."

Political observers believe Chirac wants Juppé to remain leader of his party, the Union for a Popular Majority (UMP), as he seeks to have the case overturned on appeal. His attorney has called the ruling "unjust" and promised an appeal -- a process that could take up to one year.

On live television Tuesday night, Juppé announced he would stay in politics and fight the conviction, salvaging Chirac’s hopes that his ally might one day succeed him as president.

Out of the running?

However, if the conviction stands, it will likely kill any chance the 58-year-old has of running for president in 2007 as Chirac's hand-picked successor.

It could also spoil Juppé’s more modest political ambitions. For months, there has also been considerable speculation in Paris that Chirac would appoint Juppé, who is currently mayor of Bordeaux, to a ministerial post during a reorganization of Prime Minsiter Jean-Pierre Raffarin's government. But those rumblings were premised on the belief that Juppé would be acquitted.

Dirty tricks alleged

The case took a more serious turn over the weekend, when Judge Pierce went public with allegations that judges in the case had been received death threats, had seen their offices broken into and had been spied on -- with their phones and computers being monitored.

"We don't know who was behind all this," Pierce told a French newspaper. "We simply came to the conclusion that a lot of people wanted to know what would be our decision."

The French government has ordered an inquiry into the alleged dirty tricks campaign, and the office of Prime Minster Jean-Pierre Raffarin issued a statement claiming: "If the allegations are proven, that will be a matter of extreme gravity." The National Assembly and Justice Ministries are also pursuing the allegations.

Trouble for Chirac?

The case could also have serious political implications for Chirac. Prosecutors also investigated Chirac in the case up till 2001, when, as president, he claimed constitutional immunity. Though no charges were ever filed against him, he is believed to have been deeply entangled in the city hall scandal. Critics would like Juppé's case to draw renewed attention to illicit campaign and party practices that shadowed Chirac during his reign as Parisian mayor. At the time, he was accused of using the office to promote his later run for president.

Juppé's conviction also comes just weeks before pivotal regional elections in France in which Jean-Marie Le Pen's reinvigorated right-wing National Front Party could provide fierce competition.

It could also increase the chances that Nicolar Sarkozy, currently France's interior minister, could run in 2007 on the party ticket. Sarkozy is more popular than Juppé in public opinion polls and he has often gone public in his rivalry with Chirac. Lately, the media has been increasing its focus on the dynamic 49-year-old.

If Juppé loses his appeal, it could also increase the chances that prosecutors will reopen investigations into Chirac after he leaves office and rescinds his immunity.

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