By Thierry Leveque
PARIS (Reuters) - A medical report submitted this week argues that former French president Jacques Chirac is mentally unfit to face trial, his lawyers said on Saturday, two days before he is due to face charges of misusing public funds.
The report raises the possibility that Chirac, whose legal troubles have captivated France since he lost his presidential immunity in 2007, could avoid trial over charges that date back to his time as mayor of Paris in the early 1990s.
Judge Dominique Pauthe will decide how to respond to the medical report when the trial opens with a procedural hearing on Monday. Among his options, which include asking for another medical opinion or a postponement, are dropping the case.
Chirac's lawyers, Jean Veil and Georges Kiejamn, said in a statement seen by Reuters on Saturday that the former president may not be competent to participate in trial hearings, and referred to the report, submitted to the court on Friday.
"President Chirac indicates to the court his wish to see the trial go ahead and his desire to assume his responsibilities, even if he is not entirely capable of participating in the hearings," the statement said.
The report, requested by his wife, Bernadette, and written by a well-known neurologist, says that Chirac is in a state of vulnerability that makes him unable to answer questions about his past, the daily Le Monde reported on its web site.
Chirac, 78, appeared physically fit when he was seen in public, photographed sipping a pina colada in the port of St. Tropez.
But his mental acuity is the focus of intense speculation. French media report what they describe as a general deterioration in his responsiveness, verbal agility and ability to recall facts after a small stroke suffered several years ago.
"His reactions aren't as quick as they once were," Christian Jacob, leader of the ruling UMP party group in the French National Assembly, told iTele.
Chirac, president of France between 1995 and 2007, had not been expected to appear in person on Monday at the procedural hearing opening his trial. But lawyer Jean Veil said last week that Chirac would be in court for key phases of the trial, which is expected to run until September 23.
Chirac's camp have not formally asked for the trial to be called off. He has said repeatedly that he wants his day in court and reiterated the request in a letter attached to the medical report, Le Monde reported.
If the trial goes ahead, it will mark the first time since World War Two that a French head of state has appeared in court on criminal charges, and represent a victory for France's judicial branch after years of wrangling.
The accusations against Chirac, who is charged along with nine other co-defendants, date back to a period between 1992 and 1995 when he was mayor of Paris.
He stands accused of misusing public funds, abuse of trust and incurring illegal gains, in a complex case centred on the alleged existence of 28 phantom jobs at Paris's City Hall.
If found guilty, he could face up to 10 years in prison and a fine of 150,000 euros ($213,400), though in practice a suspended sentence is seen as more likely.
The original plaintiff, the City of Paris, withdrew its complaint after Chirac agreed to pay 500,000 euros in compensation and the UMP party said it would pay a further 1.7 million euros on his behalf.
(Additional reporting and writing by Nick Vinocur)