REUTERS - Former French President Jacques Chirac will go on trial next year to face criminal charges that he misused public funds, a court said on Friday, in a case which dates back to his tenure as mayor of Paris over 15 years ago.
The former head of state, who occupied the mayoral post between 1977 and 1995 before becoming president, is accused of paying salaries to 21 "phantom employees" from public coffers.
He will be the country's first former head of state to face criminal charges since the founding of the Fifth Republic over half a century ago. The case was brought against him and others in his mayoral cabinet in 2009 after the 12 months of legal immunity linked to his office expired.
Heavy with symbolism, the case represents a potential stain on a presidential office which has traditionally been above the fray of daily politics.
The legal saga has mesmerised France. In August, newspaper Le Monde published a "political fiction" series on the trial and its imagined outcome, which was later published in book form.
Originally planned for November, the trial has been pushed back to March-April 2011, the court said on Friday.
Chirac, 77, has said he will attend but he is not required to do so by law. Georges Kiejman, his lawyer and a minister under late president Francois Mitterand, told reporters on Friday he hoped the health of Mr Chirac would allow him to attend.
The predecessor of President Nicolas Sarkozy is not known to have any serious health concerns, but recent media reports have described him as "tired" and "depressed". He lives in Paris and works as the head of a foundation named after him.
If convicted, Chirac would face up to 10 years in prison, a 150,000-euro fine and a ten-year ban from public office. Yet the circumstances leading up to the trial have added confusion to its potential outcome.
But a lawyer representing a group of taxpayers has said they will take on the mantle of plaintiffs in the trial, though he has yet to provide any documents backing the claim.
In the French legal system, a defendant can be convicted even in the absence of a plaintiff or accusing party.
Further muddying the waters, the prosecutor in charge of leading the original investigation into the case has said that evidence was not sufficient to bring a conviction and that the former president should be exonerated completely.
It is only because a investigating magistrate has decided to pursue the case that it has been brought to trial.
Nine other defendants will face trial along with Chirac, including his former cabinet director, an ex-trade union leader and the grandson of Charles de Gaulle. The charges against them concern extra salaries for friends and partners.