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By Thierry Leveque and Estelle Shirbon
PARIS (Reuters) - Former French president Jacques Chirac has been ordered to stand trial on embezzlement charges dating back to his time as mayor of Paris, an unprecedented move against a former French head of state.
Magistrate Xaviere Simeoni gave the order over allegations that the Paris City Hall awarded contracts for non-existent jobs as favours to people who were politically useful to Chirac.
Chirac's office said Friday that he and nine others had been ordered to stand trial over 21 contracts from the 1990s.
"President Chirac ... is confident, and determined to establish before a tribunal that none of the jobs that remain under discussion were non-existent jobs," the statement said.
The centre-right Chirac, 76, was mayor from 1977 until 1995, when he was elected president. He enjoyed constitutional immunity during his 12 years as head of state but has been hit by a flurry of legal problems since leaving office in 2007.
No former French head of state has been prosecuted for corruption, and a trial would be a public humiliation for a man who stood at the heart of French politics for four decades.
He is not certain to go on trial, however, because Paris public prosecutor Jean-Claude Marin had previously recommended that the case against him be dropped.
Marin has five days to appeal against Simeoni's decision. If he does so, it would be for an appeals court to say whether Chirac should go on trial or not. That could take a year or so.
Chirac's lawyer Jean Veil said that his client was not relying on the prosecutor to appeal and would be ready to defend himself in court, either in person or through his lawyers.
If convicted, he could face 10 years in jail.
The nine others charged in the same case include two of his former chiefs of staff and seven beneficiaries of the contracts for alleged non-existent jobs.
Chirac's legal woes have drawn mixed reactions from the French political class. Both friends and foes seem torn between embarrassment at old business being dredged up and a need to uphold the principle that no one is above the law.
"These are old stories and, today, Jacques Chirac probably has lots of things on his conscience but at the same time he has given a lot to the country," said Segolene Royal, ex-candidate for president from the Socialist Party, which opposed Chirac.
In retirement, Chirac has gained in popularity and has devoted his time to writing his memoirs and launching a charitable foundation. Friday, he was on holiday in Morocco.
Although he has so far avoided direct involvement in any trial, a number of his former allies and associates have been convicted on a variety of charges, tainting his legacy and leaving a bitter aftertaste of his years in public office.
His former interior minister, Charles Pasqua, was sentenced Tuesday to a year in jail for taking bribes from an illegal arms dealer and obtaining national honours for him.
Chirac's former prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, is awaiting the verdict in a trial in which he stands accused of attempting to smear his rival Nicolas Sarkozy in the run-up to the 2007 presidential election, which Sarkozy won.
Chirac's former City Hall deputy who succeeded him as mayor, Jean Tiberi, was found guilty in May of electoral fraud in the 1990s. He received a 10-month suspended jail sentence.