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 channelling 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 reorganising 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”.