Jacques Chirac was found guilty of presiding over a system of bogus employment that saw political cronies added to the Paris city payroll in non-existent jobs.
Chirac, former French president, convicted in corruption trial
Jacques Chirac Thursday became the first former president of France to be convicted on criminal charges, completing his descent from world statesman to a man broken by ill-health and disgraced by his past.
Chirac, 79, faced up to 10 years in jail and fines of up to €150,000 (Dh717,000) after being found guilty of embezzlement and breach of trust between 1990 and 1995, when he was mayor of Paris.
He was spared jail but given a suspended sentence of two years.
Chirac was absent when judgment was handed down in the first chamber of the Palais de Justice, also the setting for the condemnation by a French revolutionary court in 1793 of Marie-Antoinette.
A medical certificate accepted by the court described Chirac as suffering from a "severe and irreversible" neurological condition that caused serious memory loss.
Subject to an appeal, which was being considered last night, yesterday's events brought closure to a corruption scandal that has haunted the former president since the end of his 18-year stint at Paris city hall.
He was found guilty of presiding over a system of bogus employment that saw political cronies added to the payroll in non-existent jobs, drawing salaries that should have been paid by his conservative Gaullist party, the Rally for the Republic (RPR), forerunner of the UMP which rules France today.
The court dismissed a surprising submission by the prosecution that the charges should be thrown out on the grounds Chirac had not been shown to have masterminded, or knowingly participated in, corrupt practices. Judge Dominique Pauthe, the president of the court, said Chirac was the "initiator and principal author" of the abuses of trust that occurred.
"Jacques Chirac breached the duty of probity that weighs on officials charged with looking after public funds or property, to the detriment of the general interests of Parisians," he said.
Painstaking investigation of the affair has produced notable scalps for the examining magistrates who broke taboos to hold eminent individuals accountable for their actions during a period of rampant corruption in French public life.
Alain Juppé, Chirac's right-hand man when the salaries of RPR officials were paid from the public purse, went on to serve as prime minister.
He was later tried and convicted and given a suspended sentence but, after a period of exclusion from civic life, was allowed to make an extraordinary comeback - he is now France's foreign minister.
Last year, the UMP reached an agreement with the Parisian authorities under which €2.2 million (Dh10.52m) was repaid - three-quarters by the party, the rest by Chirac.
In its judgment yesterday, the court put the cost to taxpayers of the counts on which the former president was convicted at €1.4m.
Chirac's lawyer, Georges Kiejman, said he hoped the outcome would "change nothing of the affection the French people hold for him".
Although deeply unpopular during his second term as president, which ended in 2007, Chirac has won back a place in French hearts.
Opinion polls consistently suggest he is France's most popular political figure.
Many in the country admire him for his opposition to military intervention in Iraq and his persistent, if largely unsuccessful, stand against the march of "Anglo-Saxon" - and especially American - culture.
In office, Chirac liked to think he knew the Middle East better than most western leaders.
He also took pride in his fascination with far-off corners of the world, developing a lasting - if, to detractors, inexplicable - fondness for Japanese sumo wrestling. He stuffed a room at the Elysée with exotic gifts brought back from official visits to Africa and beyond.
In France, he became more comfortable mixing with farmers at the Paris agricultural show or tourists at his favoured holiday haunts, notably St Tropez.
Friends and family have been distressed by his decline in his health, which has seen him suffer medical symptoms similar to those of Alzheimer's disease, and tarnished by the corruption allegations.
Before the trial began in September, his daughter, Anh Dao Traxel, told the French media that her father showed no sign of recognition when their paths crossed earlier this year.
At court yesterday, she said the system had treated him with undue harshness, causing great sorrow for the family. Chirac repeatedly denied wrongdoing in the affair, insisting he always acted in the public interest.
Public reaction ranged from satisfaction that Chirac's "grandeur" had not protected him, to doubts over whether the public interest had been served by prosecuting a frail old man.
Jérôme Karsenti, from the French anti-corruption pressure group, Anticor, hailed the judgment as historic and exemplary.
The Elysée made no comment but Benoît Hamon, a spokesman for the opposition Parti Socialiste, welcomed "a good sign for French democracy". Among nine other people tried with Chirac, seven were also convicted for their parts in the affair.
One, Jean de Gaulle, a grandson of another renowned president, received a suspended sentence of three months' imprisonment.
One former head of state, Marshal Philippe Pétain, who led the Vichy collaborationist government during the Second World War without being designated president, was convicted of treason.
He was sentenced to death but later reprieved.
* Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse