- Associated Press - Thursday, December 15, 2011

PARIS 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.

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

In Thursday’s ruling, the court found that 19 totally or partially fake jobs were created to benefit Chirac. “The case and the debates established that Jacques Chirac was the initiator and principal author of crimes of abuse of trust, embezzling and illegal conflict of interest,” the ruling said.

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