PARIS (Reuters) - A judge found former French president Jacques Chirac guilty on Thursday of misusing public funds, making him the country’s first head of state to be convicted since Nazi collaborator Marshal Philippe Petain in 1945.
Chirac, 79, was absent from the court as the judge declared him guilty of knowingly operating a system that diverted about 1.4 million euros of Paris City Hall funds for political purposes when he was mayor of the French capital.
The judge handed down a suspended two-year jail sentence on Chirac, who was president from 1995 until 2007 and suffers from neurological problems, according to his doctors.
Lawyers who had sought a conviction said the verdict on Chirac served as a reminder to France’s ruling class that politicians could not abuse their position with impunity.
Chirac was tried on charges of channeling public money into phantom jobs for political cronies when he was mayor of Paris between 1977 and 1995, a time when he built a new centre-right Gaullist party that launched his bid to become president.
Chirac, excused from much of the proceedings on the grounds of a failing memory, could in theory have been sent to jail for 10 years, the maximum sentence for the charges against him.
Chirac’s lawyer, Georges Kiejman, told reporters that he would talk to his client before deciding later in the day whether to make an appeal.
“The verdict may look severe but it is worth noting that the court acted with a large measure of moderation, highlighting the personal qualities of president Chirac, how old the events in question were and the role he played in reorganizing how political parties are funded,” Kiijman said.
Jerome Karsenti, a lawyer for an anti-corruption association that sought a conviction, said Thursday’s ruling was “historic and exemplary.”
“We’ve seen a strong message delivered today: politicians can no longer do as they please when in charge of public administrations,” he told reporters outside the court.
The case came to a head after 13 years of wrangling over allegations that 28 of Chirac’s cronies were on the Paris payroll from 1992 to 1995 but did not work for the city.
Chirac benefited from immunity from prosecution while head of state, and for some time afterwards it was unclear whether he would be hauled before a court, let alone convicted.
Paris City Hall pulled out as a plaintiff earlier this year after Chirac agreed to a compensation deal worth 2.2 million euros, with 500,000 euros to be paid by himself and the rest by France’s ruling UMP party on his behalf.
The public prosecution service, which answers to the justice ministry, had recommended an acquittal, and many people believed
the verdict read out by judge Dominique Pauthe would follow that advice.
Seven of nine other people tried along with Chirac were also found guilty, among them Jean de Gaulle, grandson of President Charles de Gaulle, and Marc Blondel, a former trade union leader famous for his love of giant cigars.
Less than five months before a presidential election, the opposition Socialist Party said the verdict vindicated its call for repeal of the rule giving heads of state judicial immunity while they are in office.
Close to tears at the courthouse, Chirac’s adopted daughter Anh Dao Traxel said the verdict was overly harsh, adding: “For the family, this brings great sorrow.”
Reporting by Thierry Leveque and; Brian Love, editing by David Stamp