'Justice Has Been Done' Former French Leader Chirac Guilty of Corruption
For France, it's a sensation: Former President Jacques Chirac has been given a two-year suspended jail sentence for embezzling public funds and abusing public trust. The verdict against a former head of state is unique in the country's history -- particularly because even the prosecutor argued for an acquittal.
The historic verdict was announced in the 'Great Hall' in which Marie Antoinette, the wife of King Louis XVI, was sentenced to death during the French Revolution. A court on Thursday found Jacques Chirac, 79, guilty of diverting public funds and abusing public trust after he paid supporters for municipal jobs which didn't exist when he was mayor of Paris. The former French President was handed a two-year suspended jail sentence.
With its decision, the court finally ended the much-anticipated trial more than 20 years after the crimes of which Chirac was accused had taken place. Chirac became the first former president of the Fifth Republic to be tried -- and found guilty -- before a criminal court.
"It is an historic decision, a powerfully symbolic gesture for the independence of the judiciary," said Parisian lawyer Pierre-Francois Divier. "It was always said that the man was too old; that taking action against him would be too grim, and a prosecution against a former head of state would disparage France's reputation," said the lawyer, whose doggedness helped bring about the prosecution. "That is wrong. In reality, it is a strong signal, even if it represents a humiliation for Chirac."
Defendant Not in Court
The wheels of justice turned slowly. The accusations against Chirac date back to the 1990s, during his tenure as mayor of the French capital. To finance his party, the town hall created a raft of fictional positions -- with the knowledge of Chirac who, according to the verdict, "was well informed about the workings of his authority." These supposed employees drew salaries from the city whilst they were actually working for the conservative party. The trial looked at more than two dozen of these virtual positions -- an arrangement that cost taxpayers millions.
Chirac was able to evade justice for so long thanks to his lengthy political career. As president (1995-2007), he enjoyed immunity from judicial prosecution as the guardian of the constitution and highest representative of the Republic. Even after his second term ended in 2007, it still required much legal maneuvering before the process against him and his accomplices could begin in March. In the meantime, the City of Paris had waived its role as the civil plaintiff after the conservative ruling party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), agreed to pay compensation of around 2 million ($2.6 million). The prosecutor had then argued for an acquittal.
It was not the only nod to the still-popular defendant: Chirac did not have to face the court personally. In a letter to the presiding judge, his lawyers argued that the accused was not in a position to answer the allegations because of a neurological disease. A medical expert stated that Chirac was no longer able to follow the proceedings. His son-in-law Frederic Salat-Baroux put it more clearly: Jacques Chirac had "no memory" any longer, "his state of health has deteriorated over the past few months."
The assessment was at odds with the image that Chirac gave off occasionally during the summer, though. Whether out walking in Dinard or enjoying an aperitif on the promenade in Marseille, the former president seemed not only alert but also in high spirits and quick-witted. And at the end of August, his daughter Claude declared her father fit and ready for the trial: "Jacques Chirac has always obeyed court summonses. He wants the trial to take place."
'No Citizen Above the Law'
Still, whether out of compassion or strategy, the judge of the criminal court, Dominique Pauthe, used the possibility of conducting proceedings without the defendant's presence. The verdict has caught France's political classes by surprise, but will nonetheless be seen as a symbol of court independence.
"Justice has been done," said Eva Joly, presidential candidate for the French Green Party. "The important thing today is not the sentence, but the guilty verdict," said the former judge. "No citizen should be above the law if we are to restore confidence in justice and democracy." Similar sentiments were expressed by Andre Vallini, a member of parliament for the Socialist Party: "Of course the trial has lasted a long time, far too long. But the citizens have been clearly shown that justice works -- even if it concerns a former head of state. Jacques Chirac is now old, sick and is no longer the president of the Republic; it comes a little late, but it was necessary for justice to be done." He also said that proving the powerful are not immune to justice is an important sign, especially during election campaigns.
Jean-Marie Le Pen, former leader of the far-right Front National, sarcastically referred to Chirac's "very severe sentence."
"We were led by a criminal for 21 years, and my opponent in (the) 2002 (presidential election) is someone who should have been sent to prison," he said, acknowledging, however, that the verdict was also a "a ray of sunshine in the black sky of scandals."