A French court has given former President Jacques Chirac a two-year suspended prison sentence for diverting public funds and abusing public trust.
Mr Chirac, 79, was not in court to hear the verdict because of ill-health but denied wrongdoing. President from 1995 to 2007, he was put on trial on charges that dated back to his time as mayor of Paris. He was accused of paying members of his Rally for the Republic (RPR) party for municipal jobs that did not exist.
“The case was divided into two parts: the first count involved embezzlement and breach of trust in relation to 21 bogus jobs; the second related to a charge of illegal conflict of interest concerning seven jobs.”
The prosecution had urged the judge to acquit Mr Chirac and nine others accused in the trial. Two of the nine were cleared. The other seven were found guilty and all but one handed suspended prison sentences.
Jean de Gaulle, grandson of former President Charles de Gaulle, was handed a three-month suspended term while former union leader Marc Blondel, 73, was convicted but escaped a sentence.
In 2004, during his presidency, several figures including France’s current Foreign Minister Alain Juppe were convicted in connection with the case.
Mr Juppe was given a 14-month suspended sentence.
Jacques Chirac, mayor of Paris from 1977 to 1995, is the first former French head of state to be convicted since Marshal Philippe Petain, the leader of the wartime Vichy regime, was found guilty in 1945 of collaborating with the Nazis.
Our correspondent in Paris said the verdict would come as a surprise to the French public because the prosecution said it had not been proven that Mr Chirac had known of individual cases of fake jobs. It will be seen as a stain on his character, our correspondent adds.
‘Breach of probity’
The case was divided into two parts: the first count involved embezzlement and breach of trust in relation to 21 bogus jobs; the second related to a charge of illegal conflict of interest concerning seven jobs.
He was found guilty of both.
The former president, who had legal immunity during his time as head of state, faced a potential 10 years in prison and a fine of 150,000 euros for the employment of more than 20 bogus officials.
“Jacques Chirac has breached the duty of probity required for public officials, to the detriment of the public interest of Parisians,” said tribunal judge, Dominique Pauthe.
Although he himself was not in court, Mr Chirac’s adopted daughter Anh Dao Traxel was present to hear the verdict which she described as “too, too severe for him” and a great source of pain.
“As a family, we should all absolutely support him… for his health for the rest of his life,” she said in an emotional statement outside the court.
The former president’s doctors say he has irreversible neurological problems which cause memory lapses. His legal team will now consider whether to appeal against the conviction.
“For those expecting the case to be thrown out or at least no penalty, the ruling may appear disappointing,” said one of Mr Chirac’s lawyers, Georges Kiejman.
“I hope this judgement won’t change at all the profound affection that the French people still have towards Jacques Chirac.”
But there was little sympathy from some quarters. “I call on Mr Chirac to accept the consequences of his conviction and indeed resign from the Constitutional Council,” said Green presidential candidate Eva Joly, referring to his role in France’s highest authority for constitutional issues.
His rival for the presidency in 2002, former National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, described the verdict as “a ray of sunshine in the black sky of scandals”.
For Michel Roussin, former director of Mr Chirac’s cabinet who was found not guilty by the court of abuse of trust, the ex-president had “assumed his political responsibility”.
After 17 years of “incessant battles”, he said he was relieved the case was over.