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French court convicts ex-president Jacques Chirac

Charles Platiau / Reuters, file

Former French President Jacques Chirac is seen at an awards ceremony in Paris on Nov. 24. He was convicted of embezzling public funds, abuse of trust, and illegal conflict of interest.

UPDATED 3:10 p.m. ET

In a statement hours after the decision, Chirac said though he "categorically contest(ed)" the verdict, he would not appeal.

Despite the "pain and the profound sadness this verdict has inflicted," the statement said, "I sadly no longer have the necessary strength to lead before new judges the combat for the truth."

He said that as mayor, "it is up to me and me alone to take responsibility," but 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."

Earlier story:

PARIS --  A French court found former President Jacques Chirac guilty Thursday of embezzling public funds to illegally finance the conservative party he long led.

In the absence of the 79-year-old, who ruled from 1995 until 2007, the judge declared Chirac guilty and handed down a suspended two-year jail sentence.

Chirac, a savvy world diplomat and icon of France's political establishment for decades, is the first former French head of state to face prosecution since since Nazi collaborator Marshall Philippe Petain in 1945. But the former leader did not take part in the trial, after doctors determined that he suffers severe memory lapses.

Chirac was tried on charges of diverting public money into phantom jobs for political cronies while he was mayor of Paris between 1977 and 1995, a time when he built a new centre-right Gaullist party that launched his successful presidential bid.

He was convicted of embezzling public funds, abuse of trust, and illegal conflict of interest.

Chirac repeatedly denied wrongdoing.

The two-year suspended prison sentence goes on Chirac's criminal record but means he does not have to go behind bars. The court said it took into account his age, health and status as a former head of state when determining the sentence.

'Deep affection'
Unusually, the prosecutor had requested earlier that the case be dropped, saying not enough evidence proved intentional corruption. The court disagreed, saying "his guilt results from long-standing and reiterated practices" of illegal party financing.

"For all those who could have expected a rejection of the case against him, or at least no penalty, the ruling can appear disappointing," said Chirac lawyer Georges Kiejman. "What I hope is that this ruling doesn't change in any way the deep affection the French feel legitimately for Jacques Chirac."

Chirac skirts trial yet again in corruption case

"We have to take a step back and read this ruling, we have to speak of course with the main person involved (Chirac), and we will know tonight if he accepts this decision or, on the contrary, he wants — on principle — to appeal. For the moment, it's impossible to say more," Kiejman said.

Contacted by The Associated Press, Chirac spokeswoman Benedicte Brissart declined to comment immediately, saying time was needed to go over the legal decision.

Chirac enjoyed immunity from prosecution during his 1995-2007 presidential tenure, during which he led France into the shared euro currency and strongly opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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