Former president Jacques Chirac has spent a lifetime in French politics, and no one has ever accused him of being ungenerous.
In his 18 years as mayor of Paris, a judo instructor, a handball champion, a mountain climber and the chauffeur of a prominent union leader all got paid jobs with the city. So did assorted relatives of famous people and aides to friendly politicians from the right and the left.
Mr. Chirac, now 76, has always said he assumed the people he hired actually worked. But Friday, an investigating judge said that in at least 21 cases, the jobs were fictitious and ordered him to stand trial for abuse of trust and misuse of public funds.
Nine other people who allegedly hired or benefited from the ghost-worker operation were also charged, including several of Mr. Chirac's former aides and a grandson of former president Charles de Gaulle.
The corruption case has been percolating for 11 years, since an angry taxpayer filed a lawsuit accusing the city of padding its payroll with political operatives for Mr. Chirac's right-wing party during his tenure as mayor from 1977 to 1995.
By the time the first indictments were issued against his former cabinet chiefs and allies, in 2002, Mr. Chirac was president and had immunity from prosecution.
In late 2007, after leaving office at the end of his two-term limit, he was finally brought in for questioning. He defended himself in a long statement published in the newspaper Le Monde.
"Never were the resources of the city of Paris used for any ambition other than to act on behalf of Parisians," he wrote at the time.
Only last week, it appeared that Mr. Chirac might well escape being charged in the fake jobs case. The chief prosecutor of Paris, a political appointee, had recommended against putting him on trial. But investigating judges in France, who act independently, were the ones to make the decision.
Hints of corruption have long shadowed the avuncular Mr. Chirac, a classic political glad-hander who has served as a deputy in the National Assembly and prime minister as well as mayor. At times in the 1990s, he held down all three jobs at once.
Five years ago, in a related case, former prime minister Alain Juppé was convicted of using people on the Paris payroll to work in Mr. Chirac's right-wing party. He received an 18-month suspended sentence.
Mr. Chirac faces a possible 10-year prison term if convicted of misuse of city money.
He was reported to be in Morocco on vacation, but a statement issued by his office said he was serene and looking forward to proving his innocence.
In just the past week, other ex-luminaries of the Chirac era of French politics have also found themselves in Paris courtrooms.
Former prime minister Dominique de Villepin was on trial for using a stolen document to try to smear Nicolas Sarkozy, his old political rival who succeeded Mr. Chirac as French president. Prosecutors have asked for an 18-month suspended sentence.
One of Mr. Chirac's former interior ministers, Charles Pasqua, was convicted in a case of arms-smuggling to Angola, along with the son of former president François Mitterrand. Mr. Chirac served as prime minister under Mr. Mitterrand.
When he left office two years ago, Mr. Chirac's popularity was in the single digits and he was lampooned as a tired, remote has-been. Once he was gone, however, his image improved and he is now listed as one of the French public's favourite personalities.
Earlier this year, he set up a foundation to lobby for affordable drugs for African countries and for sustainable development. He has been writing an autobiography that was to come out next week.
Special to The Globe and Mail