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Impeachment Call In France

A Socialist lawmaker has gathered 30 of 58 signatures needed to move forward with an effort to prosecute conservative President Jacques Chirac in two corruption scandals, the newspaper Le Monde reported Monday.

But the effort was still seen as unlikely to succeed.

Arnaud Montebourg is trying to pick up where a number of investigating magistrates left off, saying the probe was beyond their jurisdiction.

He needs 58 signatures to take his proposal to a parliament vote, and is appealing to colleagues to act before the statute of limitations on the cases runs out, Le Monde reported.

Several judges are currently investigating two separate scandals whose nerve center in each case was allegedly Paris City Hall. Chirac served as mayor of Paris from 1977 to 1995, when he was elected president. He has denied any knowledge of corruption.

Despite the 30 signatures gathered from deputies in the National Assembly, the lower house, Montebourg is seen as having little chance of success with his effort to get the High Court of Justice to convene. The upper house, or Senate, is dominated by Chirac's right wing.

Even Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's Socialist Party does not appear eager to take up Montebourg's proposal. Jospin has called the effort "a bit solitary," while Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande has said it is "destined to failure."

The petition signers are backbenchers from the Socialist, Greens and smaller left-wing parties except for Mamere and former women's rights minister Yvette Roudy, a Socialist.

"The issue is whether a president who is implicated in scandals, as two judicial inquiries have proven, can run for reelection," Greens deputy Noel Mamere, the most prominent signatory, told Reuters.

"I regret that we're only 30," said Mamere, who is expected to be his party's candidate for president next year.

In his proposal to bring the president before the special court's investigating committee, Montebourg wrote:

"How can we explain to our fellow citizens that the offenses committed by presidents Joseph Estrada (of the Philippines), Alberto Fuijimori (of Peru), Richard Nixon, who was at the head of the world's most powerful nation, are subject to trial, but that in France we cannot find any judge to judge President Jacques Chirac and the serious offenses he is suspected of?"

Nearly 50 people have been placed under investigation — a step short of being formally charged — in connection with a scheme built around kickbacks from contractors, allegedly developed to finance Chirac's Rally for the Republic party.

In April, Investigating Magistrate Eric Halphen, who had summoned Chirac as a witness in the case, bowed out after the president refused to appear, citing conflict of interest. Halphen said that only the special court had the proper jurisdiction.

Chirac's name was also cited in the investigation of allegedly phony jobs at City Hall, another alleged scheme to finance the RPR, in which 28 peole are suspects.

Chirac has repeatedly denied wrongdoing. Jospin's Socialist Party is alleged to have benefited to a lesser extent from the carve-up of covert funds.

The magistrate handling that probe, Patrick Desmure, also said the affair was beyond his jurisdiction.

Montebourg said the statute of limitations will run out on the first case in April 2004, and in the second case in April 2002.

The High Court of Justice, made up of senators and deputies, is the only body that can judge an elected official for offenses committed while in office. To convene it, the first step is to gather 58 signatures so a vote can be held. An identical text of the proposal to bring the president to court must be passed by both houses of the parliament.

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