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 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 he 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 that though he "categorically contested" the verdict, he would not appeal.
He said that as mayor, "it is up to me and me alone to take responsibility," but he 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.
Chirac was found guilty in two related cases involving 19 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 hailed the decision as measured and courageous, saying the court showed how political elites and average citizens were equal under the law. Anticorruption 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 of the anticorruption group Anticor.
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.
In a brief statement, President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose conservative UMP party is the successor to Chirac's RPR party, said: "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."