After a rollercoaster of a career stretching over half a century, the reputation of the former French president Jacques Chirac was stamped yesterday with a final word: "fraud".
Despite 14 years of delays and rearguard actions and despite the best efforts of his former protégé, President Nicolas Sarkozy, Chirac, 79, was convicted by a Paris court of, in effect, embezzling taxpayers' money to fund his rise to the presidency between 1990 and 1995. Chirac – the first former French head of state to be prosecuted since the Nazi collaborator Marshall Philippe Pétain in 1945 – was given a two-year suspended jail sentence.
He was not in court for the ruling after being excused attendance at his trial in September on health grounds.
The verdict was also a condemnation of the state prosecution service, which – under pressure from President Sarkozy – repeatedly pressed for Chirac's acquittal. The case was brought, against the state prosecutor's wishes, at the insistence of two independent investigating magistrates.
Chirac's wife Bernadette and his old colleagues were determined to avoid a trial and conviction that would permanently stain his muddled legacy. Public and political reaction to the conviction was mixed. Chirac is enormously popular in France, much more so than when in office.
Some comment on Twitter and blogs yesterday suggested the judgment was "too late to have any meaning" and persecution of a "sick old man". There were also fears that it would undermine trust in mainstream politics in France at a time when several other corruption sagas are threatening to resurface.
But others took great satisfaction that the judicial system resisted official pressure and punished a popular ex-President, even with a suspended sentence.
Chirac was convicted of embezzlement of public funds, breach of trust and conflict of interest while mayor of Paris between 1990 and 1995.
The court found he was the main organiser and beneficiary of a network of "fake jobs" in Paris town hall that boosted the staff and influence of his now defunct centre-right party.
The judges suggested "fictitious jobs" were the tip of an iceberg of a complex system of "embezzlement" of public cash to finance Chirac's rise to power. The 19 posts ranged from a chauffeur provided for a trade union leader to an "agricultural adviser" to the town hall – who actually worked in Chirac's constituency office 300 miles away.