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 today with repercussions for his legacy and France's political elite. Chirac will not go behind bars, but was handed a two-year suspended prison 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 today 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. "This is a strong message from the court," says one anti-corruption advocate, "a message to politicians of responsibility. It's also proof of a mature and transparent democracy that is today able to make a distinction and try a former president."