[Update: In contrast to what had been the prevailing assumption in France following the verdict in Jacques Chirac’s corruption trial (all detailed below), the former French President announced Thursday night he would not seek appeal, saying waning health and energy left him unable to wage another protracted legal battle. In doing so, however, Chirac staunchly reiterated his innocence in the case, and defended his honor in general. We’re still betting heavily, however, that the legal and historical smear won’t loom largest in French memory in remembering Chirac and his career in the longer haul (and wager thus without opining whether that attitude is a good or bad thing).]
Former President Jacques Chirac will not only go down in history as the first French head of state since World War Two to stand trial; he’ll also now be known as first to have been convicted as well. On Dec. 14, Chirac was found guilty of illegal use of taxpayer funds and abuse of public confidence while serving as the mayor of Paris in the early 1990s. Although the two-year suspended prison sentence handed down with the ruling means the 79 year-old former president will not spend any time in jail—or suffer any other significant legal sanction for his acts—an ailing, embarrassed Chirac will likely appeal the verdict.
The case stems from Chirac’s 18-year stint as mayor of Paris, an electoral stronghold he used to mount successive presidential runs ahead of his victorious 1995 bid for the Elysée. Despite numerous suspicions—and earlier court cases—alleging Paris’ city hall had functioned like Chirac’s personal and political fiefdom during that time, Wednesday’s verdict focused specifically on the period of 1992-1995. During that span, Chirac is accused of having overseen a purported scheme under which 28 members of his conservative party were paid salaries for fictional municipal jobs. Chirac and his eight co-defendants all pleaded not guilty to those charges. Two were acquitted, but the rest—barring one individual whose sentence was waived—were convicted to suspended sentences. Chirac’s lawyers said they’d decide whether to appeal after consulting with the ex-president, who did not attend to any of the proceedings due to failing health.
Indeed, it’s because the aging Chirac is said to suffer from increasingly fragile physical and mental condition that some observers believe the former leader will decide to challenge Wednesday’s ruling as a last shot to protect his place in history. That could either come by being acquitted in a re-trial, some legal experts say, or leaving the conviction hanging unconfirmed in legal limbo should Chirac die awaiting appeal. As it is, Chirac has dedicated so many years fighting the charges it would make little sense to give up now.
Chirac initially began that battle while still in office by citing presidential immunity when investigators sought to question him in the case. Within six months of Chirac’s departure from the Elysée, however, justice officials called the former head of state in for interrogation and quickly placed him under official investigation—a status in France akin to being named a suspect.
Then things got really interesting—and (this being France) very political.
After a review of evidence in the inquiry, France’s top prosecutors ruled the dossier too weak to take to court, and requested the case be dropped—sparking cries of political meddling to protect Chirac from justice. But an independent magistrate responsible for examining the inquiry and the prosecutors’ motion ordered the case to trial, provoking surprisingly mixed responses from politicians, pundits, and the public. Despite the multiple and at times surreal accusations of corruption that had dogged Chirac before, during, and after his presidency, it turned out the troubling precedent of an aging former president being dragged into court wasn’t one a majority of the French public wanted to see established.
Neither, it turned out, did many of Chirac’s political opponents—some of whom lamented the trial as an obsessive waste of time for illicit acts alleged to have occurred long ago. Last year, as Chirac’s court case loomed, Socialist politicians who now rule Paris’ city hall agreed to drop their litigation in exchange for a $3 million reimbursement by Chirac and his conservative party, a sum corresponding to taxpayer money lost to fund the false employment scheme. Despite that accord, justice authorities—and anti-corruption plaintiffs in the case—held their ground and pushed their complaint to trial. Surprisingly, Chirac’s legal woes combined with other factors to generate considerable public backing for him. One consequence of that was that the man who left office with record-low approval ratings quickly soared to the list of France’s most popular figures—far outstripping his successor and foe, Nicolas Sarkozy.
Time, it seems, is being very kind to public memory of Chirac, as well as of a presidency that not all that was once synonymous with stasis and drift. That public esteem is due in part to favorable and nostalgic comparisons with the divisive and controversial President Nicolas Sarkozy. Once reputed as being a ruthless tueur (or “killer”) of political foes and ambitious allies alike, Chirac came to be seen later in his career as a calm and sagacious father figure—a reputation enhanced by his prescient opposition to the war in Iraq. Meanwhile, whereas corruption allegations had previously led pundits and average citizens to deride Chirac as pourri (rotten), these days even his former political opponents tend to tut-tut suspicious of misbehavior by the former president as the acts of an incorrigible filou (scamp).
All of that makes it likely that even if Chirac doesn’t challenge his conviction—or isn’t found innocent through appeal—he isn’t likely to be remembered foremost in France for his new, unenviable place in French presidential history. That’s especially so because—in stark contrast to so-called Anglo-Saxon sensibilities—the French remain remarkably pragmatic and forbearing when it comes to certain kinds of wrong-doing by officials. Politicians found guilty of corruption for personal gain suffer public fury and contempt that usually ends careers. By contrast, those judged culpable of fraud benefiting peons and their political parties seem to enjoy considerable leniency in the court of public opinion. A corruption conviction synonymous with political death in North America, Germany, or the U.K. isn’t necessarily fatal—or even too debilitating—in countries like France or Italy.
Just ask Alain Juppé—who long acted as Chirac’s right-hand man in Paris’ city hall, served as his prime minister from 1995-1997, and was widely considered Chirac’s heir-apparent as the right’s presidential champion. In 2004, Juppé was found guilty of corruption under the same fake jobs scheme his former boss has now been condemned for. The result was an 18-month suspended sentence and temporary ban from politics that most observers thought spelled the end of Juppé in public life. Yet after a brief timeout in the wilderness, Juppé has since returned to arguably his finest political form, serving in successive cabinet positions under Sarkozy and currently winning much praise as France’s Foreign Affairs Minister. In fact, Juppé’s post-conviction fortunes have reversed themselves so dramatically that he’s still considered by some of his fellow conservatives as a more credible candidate for the 2012 presidential election than the unpopular Sarkozy. It’s a renaissance and ascendancy suggesting that perhaps only age—rather than his rap sheet—could keep Chirac himself from considering another stab at the Elysée.