TOURS, France (AFP) - A French senator and former mayor of Tours, due to stand trial in a corruption case over fake Chinese wedding trips in the picturesque Loire valley city, killed himself Tuesday before the trial opened, authorities said.
Jean Germain, 67, seen as a close ally of President Francois Hollande, was found dead in the garage next to his house as the trial was due to begin, according to a police source.
"At 9:00am, neighbours heard a suspicious noise. It looks like it was a suicide with a hunting rifle," said local prosecutor Jean-Luc Beck.
Germain left a suicide note, saying he was being prosecuted "for political reasons", something he found "unbearable".
"You can be sure that I never embezzled a centime, that I did not take any money, that I always worked for what I believed to be in the best interests of the people of Tours," the note read.
A visibly moved Hollande said it was a "terrible tragedy that a man can commit suicide because he does not want his honour to be stained".
"A great elected official has died in particularly cruel circumstances," added the president.
Germain supported Hollande during his 2012 presidential campaign, advising the future president on education policy.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls said he was "overwhelmed" by the news, adding: "I have lost a friend." The current mayor of Tours, Serge Babary, ordered the flags in the western city to be flown at half-mast, saying: "Tours is in mourning."
Germain was due to stand trial on Tuesday for alleged complicity in a corruption case over Chinese "weddings" that took place in Tours between 2007 and 2011.
A member of his staff, Lise Han, stands accused of fraud, collusion and mishandling public funds.
While she was working at the City Hall on tourism issues, she was also allegedly running a private company organising the so-called wedding trips.
The trips did not include a real wedding ceremony but couples travelled long distances and paid large sums for what were billed as "romantic wedding" packages and were photographed in wedding attire in stunning locations, including the Tours City Hall.
The mayor even posed with the couples in his full official dress.
Although she had officially resigned from her job as head of the organising group, Time Sarl, she is accused of continuing to run the firm while at City Hall, which was in turn subcontracting the work to her firm.
Germain, who has said he was in the dark about the "lies and manipulations" of Han, stood accused of complicity in collusion and misappropriation of public funds.
His lawyer Dominique Tricaud told reporters at the opening of the trial: "The last time I saw him was last week. He said that no one in his family had ever stood accused in court.... He saw it as a sort of dishonour."
"He is a martyr of the Republic. He has been thrown to the dogs in this case," added the lawyer.
The trial, which was supposed to last until Friday, was postponed until October 13, said the presiding judge.