- Associated Press - Thursday, December 15, 2011

PARIS (AP) — A French court found former President Jacques Chirac guilty of embezzling public funds to illegally finance the conservative party he long led, in a historic verdict Thursday with repercussions for his legacy and France’s political elite.

Chirac, a savvy world diplomat and icon of France’s ruling establishment for decades, will not go behind bars but was handed a two-year suspended sentence that goes on his criminal record. Anti-corruption crusaders, long frustrated by dirty dealings in the French political machine, rejoiced at the conviction.

Chirac 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 1977-95 tenure as Paris mayor. He was convicted of embezzling public funds, abuse of trust and illegal conflict of interest.

Chirac repeatedly denied wrongdoing. It took years to get him to trial because he enjoyed immunity from prosecution during his 1995-2007 presidential tenure, during which he led France into the shared euro currency and became the global champion of opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

The court said it took into account his age, health and status as a former head of state when determining the light sentence.

Unusually, the prosecutor had requested that Chirac and the nine other defendants in the complex two-part case be acquitted, saying not enough evidence proved intentional corruption. The court disagreed, saying his guilt results “from long-standing and reiterated practices” of illegal party financing.

Chirac’s adopted daughter, Anh Dao Traxel, fought back tears as she lamented the ruling.

“The justice system has been very severe, but this is a fair and independent justice system. For the family, it’s a great pain we have to accept,” Ms. Traxel said, her voice cracking with emotion as she spoke to reporters outside the courtroom.

“I think this decision is too, too severe for him, and our family has more than ever to show solidarity and be supportive, for his health for the rest of his life,” said Ms. Traxel, a former Vietnamese boat person. Chirac and his wife formally adopted Ms. Traxel after she came to Paris in 1979.

Chirac spokeswoman Benedicte Brissart declined to comment immediately, saying time was needed to go over the decision.

Chirac lawyer Georges Kiejman called the ruling disappointing and said he expected a decision later Thursday on whether Chirac would appeal.

“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,” Mr. Kiejman said. “What I hope is that this ruling doesn’t change in any way the deep affection the French feel legitimately for Jacques Chirac.”

The ruling is certain to bruise Chirac’s public image. Leaving office in 2007 did wonders for his popularity: While polls showed that he was unpopular in his final years as president, those numbers soared afterward. Even today, the avuncular former leader, who now focuses on charitable work, is one of France’s most popular public figures.

Critics pushed for years to see Chirac answer charges of illegal party financing, frustrated by his presidential immunity and a sense that the political machine would never let the sensitive trial come to pass.

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