PARIS (AP) — A French court found former President Jacques Chirac guilty in a historic verdict Thursday of embezzling public funds to illegally finance the conservative party he long led, and handed him a suspended prison sentence.
Chirac, a savvy world diplomat and icon of France's political establishment for decades, is the first former French head of state to face prosecution since the World War II era. But the 79-year-old former leader did not take part in the trial, after doctors determined that he suffers severe memory lapses.
The court said Thursday it had found Chirac guilty in two related cases involving fake jobs created at the RPR party, which he led during his 1977-1995 tenure as Paris mayor. He was convicted of embezzling public funds, abuse of trust, and illegal conflict of interest.
Chirac repeatedly denied wrongdoing.
He was given a two-year suspended prison sentence, which goes on Chirac's criminal record but means he does not have to go behind bars. The court said it took into account his age, health and status as a former head of state when determining the sentence.
Unusually, the prosecutor had requested earlier that the case be dropped, saying not enough evidence proved intentional corruption. The court disagreed, saying "his guilt results from long-standing and reiterated practices" of illegal party financing.
"For all those who could have expected a rejection of the case against him, or at least no penalty, the ruling can appear disappointing," said Chirac lawyer Georges Kiejman. "What I hope is that this ruling doesn't change in any way the deep affection the French feel legitimately for Jacques Chirac."
"We have to take a step back and read this ruling, we have to speak of course with the main person involved (Chirac), and we will know tonight if he accepts this decision or, on the contrary, he wants — on principle — to appeal. For the moment, it's impossible to say more," Kiejman said.
Contacted by The Associated Press, Chirac spokeswoman Benedicte Brissart declined to comment immediately, saying time was needed to go over the legal decision.
Chirac enjoyed immunity from prosecution during his 1995-2007 presidential tenure, during which he led France into the shared euro currency and strongly opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.