PARIS — In a landmark decision, a French court convicted former president Jacques Chirac on Thursday of embezzling government money while he was mayor of Paris and handed him a two-year suspended sentence.
The ruling against Chirac, at 79 a grandfatherly figure who is widely admired in the polls, stained a long record of political service that started under Charles de Gaulle and included two terms as president, from 1995 to 2007. His attorneys said he would not appeal but considered the verdict unjustified.
Chirac was found guilty of embezzling money, abusing the public trust and conflict of interest by creating false jobs at Paris City Hall, which he ran from 1977 until 1995. He diverted the tax-funded salaries to finance his conservative political organization, Rally for the Republic, as he laid the groundwork for his run for the presidency, the court found.
The conviction, after a lengthy trial, was considered historic because Chirac was France’s first former head of state to face prosecution since just after World War II. Moreover, it dramatized a change in public and official attitudes toward the financing of parties and political figures in France. Until recently, sleight of hand such as Chirac’s was common practice, and many high-ranking officials were paid with paper bags stuffed with cash taken from secret slush funds.
Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, for instance, was convicted in 2004 of similar charges and given a suspended sentence of 14 months in prison along with a year of ineligibility for public office. After a spell in Canada and the United States, he returned to become mayor of Bordeaux and, eventually, foreign minister under President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Although the accusations against Chirac arose years ago, he was immune from prosecution during his years as president. After he left office, his attorneys found one reason after another to delay the proceedings, prompting anti-corruption activists to complain of favoritism. Throughout the trial, Chirac maintained that he had done nothing illegal or immoral.
The former president did not attend the hearing at which his conviction was announced. Appearing enfeebled in recent outings, he was found to be suffering from a neurological affliction leading to memory loss and received a dispensation from the obligation to attend.
An adopted daughter, Anh Dao Traxel, told reporters after the hearing that the court’s ruling seemed harsh for an elderly former president in poor health. “Our family has, more than ever, to show solidarity and be supportive,” Traxel said, tears in her eyes.
Sarkozy’s office issued a statement expressing hope that the verdict will not overshadow Chirac’s achievements in a long political career. Prime Minister Francois Fillon — queried by reporters traveling with him on a trip to Brazil — said the decision came too long after the facts.
Chirac had no immediate comment. His lead attorney, Georges Keijman, expressed hope that the conviction will not diminish the affection many people feel for Chirac.
A beer-drinking bon vivant with a fondness for earthy French dishes, Chirac is known for his readiness to pose for photos or sign a napkin for admirers. His down-home friendliness has been compared favorably to Sarkozy’s more hurried approach to public life.
Chirac caused chuckles across the country last summer when photographers snapped him drinking piña coladas and flirting with girls on the terrace of a cafe at a chic Mediterranean resort town — until his wife, Bernadette, came by and, in a scolding tone, told him it was time to leave.