PARIS - President Jacques Chirac of France has ordered an investigation into a report that a judge was threatened with death before the panel she headed convicted one French leader's key political allies, the prime minister's office said yesterday.
On Friday, a court in the Paris suburb of Nanterre handed former prime minister Alain Juppe a suspended 18-month prison sentence and barred him from holding political office for 10 years for his role in a party financial scandal.
The daily newspaper Liberation reported Saturday that Catherine Pierce, the head of the three-judge panel, had recently received a letter threatening her with death, and that other judges on the Nanterre panel also were threatened and harassed.
Le Parisien newspaper also published an interview with Pierce on Saturday, saying that unidentified people had searched court computers in the months before the verdict and that the judges also believed their personal and office phones had been tapped.
Yesterday's statement from the office of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said judges had indicated that ``there were threats and pressure on some members of the judicial body.'' It also said that unidentified judges had reported that people broke into the court before the verdict.
``If proven true, these events are of an extreme severity,'' the statement said.
It was not clear from any account whether the pressure or threats were intended to force the judicial panel to convict Juppe or to exonerate him.
Chirac instructed Raffarin to set up a three-person commission composed of members of France's highest administrative, financial, and judicial bodies to investigate.
The commission is to report its findings and recommend possible penalties by the end of the month, the statement said.
Juppe's conviction stems from a bogus jobs scheme in the 1990s under which Paris City Hall paid salaries of some personnel of Chirac's political party.
Juppe, 58, was the city's finance director under Chirac, who was mayor for 18 years until elected president in 1995, and a leader in Chirac's party, then called the Rally for the Republic, or RPR.
The court decision could herald legal problems for Chirac once he leaves office. For now, presidential immunity protects him.
Meanwhile, Reuters reported that France's ruling center-right party united behind Juppe.
``Alain Juppe, president of our movement, is going through a difficult time. What's important is that we all send him a message of friendship and solidarity,'' said Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, widely seen as Juppe's main rival to succeed Chirac.
``No one can doubt Alain Juppe's personal integrity and honesty. Personally, I wish him to continue his political life,'' the Journal du Dimanche quoted Sarkozy as saying at a party meeting Saturday evening.
Messages of support from party officials and government ministers continued to dominate the Sunday papers, as many urged Juppe not to give up on politics.