PARIS — As French president, Jacques Chirac was called all sorts of names, not the least for his vociferous opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Now, he has a moniker that will stick: Convicted criminal.
The avuncular 79-year-old on Thursday became France's first former leader to be convicted since Marshal Philippe Petain, who headed the Nazi collaborationist regime during World War II, in 1945. Chirac will not go to prison, but received a two-year suspended sentence for corruption linked to his 18-year term as the mayor of Paris.
In a statement hours after the decision, Chirac said though he "categorically contest(ed)" the verdict, he would not appeal.
Despite the "pain and the profound sadness this verdict has inflicted," the statement said, "I sadly no longer have the necessary strength to lead before new judges the combat for the truth."
He said that as mayor, "it is up to me and me alone to take responsibility," but stressed that "above all, I affirm with honor: I cannot be blamed for anything."
"I leave (judgment) to my compatriots, who know who I am: an honest man who never had any other desire or motivation than the unity of the French people, the greatness of France, and action in favor of peace."
The verdict was an uncomfortable coda to Chirac's four-decade career as a fixture of French politics, and could aid efforts by critics to rid the political system of its cushy cronyism. It also tarnishes the lofty image that French presidents often enjoy at home just as the country gears up for another presidential race.
Chirac was found guilty in two related cases involving 19 totally or partially fake jobs created for his benefit at the RPR party, which he led as Paris mayor from 1977 to 1995. He was convicted of embezzling public funds, abuse of trust, and illegal conflict of interest.
Critics of the conservative Chirac – many on the political left – hailed the decision as measured and courageous, saying the court showed how political elites and average citizens were equal under the law. Anti-corruption crusaders, long frustrated by dirty dealings in the French political machine, rejoiced.
"I see it as a historic and very important decision for the future of French democracy," said Jerome Karsenti, a lawyer for the anti-corruption group Anticor, which had argued against Chirac as a civil party to the case.
"This is a strong message from the court – a message to all 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," Karsenti added.
Allies, however, expressed personal sadness for Chirac, praising him as a defender of French values on the world stage who was now embarrassed by what some characterized as a scandal of little consequence.
"This is a decision that I don't believe will alter the personal relationship between the French people and Jacques Chirac," said Prime Minister Francois Fillon, a fellow conservative.
"This conviction is severe – it's both criminal and moral," said Francois Hollande, the Socialist Party presidential candidate, who recently appeared in public with Chirac. "It strikes at the man, so I have a thought for him."
Because Chirac has suffered from ill health and memory lapses recently, he was spared from appearing in court for a trial sought for years by investigating judges. The trial, which started in March, only became possible after he left office and lost his presidential immunity in 2007.
The three-judge panel juggled an array of considerations as they handed down their 120-page ruling: Chirac's age and fading memory; the state prosecutor's call for the case to be thrown out for a lack of evidence; a recent reimbursement deal between Chirac, his allies and Paris City Hall.
In the end, the court faulted Chirac for criminal exploitation of political tools – even if he never benefited financially – that cemented his march to higher office.
"His guilt results from perennial and repeated practices attributed to him, and whose development was greatly favored by a perfect understanding of the wheels of the city machinery," the court said in its ruling.
The court said it took into account his age, health and status as a former head of state when determining the light sentence – Chirac could have been jailed for up to 10 years and fined euro150,000 ($210,000).
The other nine defendants on trial included members of France's political elite. Two were acquitted and seven convicted, including former French leader Charles de Gaulle's grandson, the brother of the Constitutional Court president, and former Chirac aides.
Chirac has repeatedly denied wrongdoing.
In a brief statement, President Nicolas Sarkozy said "it is not his place to comment" on the verdict but commented anyway.
"These circumstances mustn't make us forget Jacques Chirac's constant commitment to serving France, which won and continues to win him the affection of the French," said Sarkozy, whose conservative UMP party is the successor to Chirac's RPR party.
In another recent scandal, two longtime Sarkozy allies have been targeted in a case of suspected kickbacks in a 1990s French defense deal with Pakistan. Sarkozy served as budget minister at the time, but his office and allies insist he was not involved.
Chirac's adopted daughter fought back tears after 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," said Anh Dao Traxel, her voice cracking with emotion outside the courtroom.
A career politician, Chirac was a debonair master of the workings of public office. He modeled himself after de Gaulle, and was nicknamed "Le Bulldozer" early in his career for his determination and ambition.
France's last leader with memories of World War II, Chirac was the first to acknowledge the nation's responsibility for the deportation of Jews during the Holocaust. But he struggled to achieve reforms to the regulated economy and failed to defuse tensions between police and minority youth that exploded into riots in 2005.
Now focusing on charitable work now, he is one of France's most popular public figures.
Chirac made his reputation internationally for refusing to join U.S. President George W. Bush's drive to the war that toppled Saddam Hussein as leader of Iraq in 2003 – fomenting some anti-French feeling in the United States.
A Las Vegas radio station once used an armored vehicle to crush photographs of Chirac, photocopies of the French flag, a Paris travel guide, bottles of wine and French bread. French fries in Congress were renamed "freedom fries," and some critics called the French "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" – a barb pulled from "The Simpsons" TV cartoon show.
Jamey Keaten contributed to this report.