After a semi-glorious 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 three judges' verdict was also a condemnation of the French 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 the verdict would undermine trust in mainstream politics in France at a time when several other corruption sagas are threatening to resurface.
But other people instead took great satisfaction that the judicial system resisted intense 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.
The offences may seem trivial, but opposition politicians and anti-corruption campaigners have long argued that Chirac's party, the Rassemblement pour la République (RPR), was funded by a web of interlocking scams.
These also allegedly included cash kickbacks on Paris town hall contracts – an area still nominally under investigation. All French parties funded themselves in dubious ways until the 1980s, but the court decided that Chirac and his party continued to ransack public coffers after state financing of politics was introduced in the early 1990s.
It is uncertain whether affection will diminish for the former President, who has a form of Alzheimer's disease.
Sarkozy won power in 2007 on an "anti-Chirac" ticket – more purposeful, more hands-on, more consistent, less hostile to American influence.
After more than four years of Sarkozy's frenetic leadership, many in France now look back fondly at Chirac as a rascally but reassuring great uncle.
He did not achieve very much but at least had the good sense to oppose the Iraqi war in 2003.
Those with longer memories recall another Chirac: a cynical, calculating and, when necessary, a brutal politician. The Chirac who backstabbed his way to leadership of the Gaullist movement in the 1970s; who betrayed President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing in 1981; who was a virulent eurosceptic and then a flag-waving European; who dispatched all his rivals until his estranged protégé Sarkozy outwitted him.
Chirac's career ups and downs began early. He was a far-left activist as a young man before spending almost a year in the US. He worked as a soft drinks server in Boston and a chauffeur before returning to France and becoming briefly a far-right activist. He switched again to became a Gaullist junior minister who helped negotiate the end of the students' and workers' revolt in May 1968. He once claimed to have attended secret talks with union leaders with a revolver in his pocket.
After General Charles de Gaulle's death, Chirac betrayed his Gaullist friends and rivals by supporting the non-Gaullist centre-right candidate Giscard in the 1974 presidential race.
He became Giscard's prime minister but later defected to start his own neo-Gaullist party. His campaign against Giscard in 1981, as a eurosceptic, flag-waving French nationalist, split the right and helped bring the socialist Francois Mitterrand to power.
From his Paris town hall base, Chirac tried in vain to unseat Mitterrand in 1988. That year he became a convinced European, large blue and yellow-starred banners adorning his meetings.
Finally, in 1995, Chirac reached the Elysée Palace after defeating a rebellion by two of his closest acolytes, the Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, and the budget minister, Nicolas Sarkozy.
Judicial investigations into Chirac's party finances were all but frozen during his 12 years in the Elysée.
He achieved little as President. But he did engineer a sweeping constitutional interpretation of his presidential immunity from prosecution that prevented investigating magistrates from even questioning him. Hence, in large part, the lateness of yesterday's judgment.
Chirac timeline: His rise and fall
1932 Chirac is born to a well-to-do Parisian family.
1956 He marries and later has two daughters.
1962 Despite dabbling in far-right anti-Gaullist movements in 1961, Chirac joins the staff of the Prime Minister, Georges Pompidou, under President Charles de Gaulle.
1974 In May, Chirac is made Prime Minister by President Valery Giscard d'Estaing. He resigns two years later.
1977 Chirac is elected Mayor of Paris, a position he will hold for 18 years. For the last eight of these, Chirac and his wife spend around £1.7m of public funds on food and drink.
1986 President Francois Mitterrand names Chirac Prime Minister. He stays in office for two years.
1995 Chirac is sworn in as President in May. He becomes the first French head of state to acknowledge, and apologise for, the role that France played in rounding up Jews during the Holocaust.
1997 Chirac dissolves his own centre-right majority in the National Assembly and calls a parliamentary election, expecting to win. He does not, and relinquishes power to Socialist Lionel Jospin.
2000 Chirac is accused of corruption during his time as mayor. He is protected by presidential immunity.
2001 Chirac's former chauffeur publishes a book detailing the politician's affairs.
2002 Chirac wins presidential election against far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. In July, he survives an assassination attempt.
2003 Chirac's opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq boosts his popularity at home and abroad (but not in the US).
2005 Chirac campaigns in favour of the proposed European constitution but French voters reject it in a referendum.
2007 Chirac announces he will not stand for a third term. He is ordered to stand trial accused of embezzling public funds for his own political ends during his time as mayor.
2011 Chirac becomes the first President of the French republic to be convicted of a crime.Reuse content