When Jacques Chirac was convicted of corruption in the most historic court in France last Thursday, he became the first ex-president of the Fifth Republic to be exposed as a common criminal. Less than five years after stepping down as head of state, the 79-year-old was found guilty of embezzlement and abuse of trust.
The corruption trial at the Premiere Chambre Civile of the Palais de Justice threw light on every aspect of Mr Chirac’s character, but also on the office in which he flourished. Institutionalised sleaze was the focus, as action was finally taken against a decaying system which has produced an extraordinarily decadent and ineffective political class.
Mr Chirac’s punishment – a two-year suspended prison sentence – was measly considering he misspent millions in taxpayer money, but the impact of his conviction cannot be underestimated. Mr Chirac had even introduced a law preventing serving presidents from being prosecuted. This meant that nobody could touch him when, as head of state between 1995 and 2007, the corruption allegations first surfaced.
It was eventually proved that, as Paris mayor, Mr Chirac had created fictitious jobs and diverted money to his party, in part to reward supporters. Put in simple terms: Mr Chirac spent 12 years as president thanks to dirty money.
Yet Georges Kiejman, Mr Chirac’s defence lawyer, said: “What I hope is that this ruling does not change in any way the deep affection the French feel legitimately for Jacques Chirac.”
Like many French people, I consider such a view to be cynical. Moreover, I believe that Mr Chirac’s crimes are a symptom of a country which has been in denial for years.
The French foreign minister, Alain Juppe, has already received a 12-month suspended sentence over the same allegations (in 2004). Other members of the government, including President Nicolas Sarkozy himself, are currently under investigation over the Liliane Bettencourt affair.
This has seen the 88-year-old L’Oreal heiress allegedly avoiding tax after providing envelopes full of cash to Mr Sarkozy and other members of his ruling UMP party. This was the same UMP which was originally created as a coalition to support Mr Chirac. One certainly wonders how much dirty money is awash in Paris government.
If this kind of scandal happened in other democracies there would have been a loud public outcry. But strict privacy laws and a toothless French press have seen the matter relegated to an increasingly protracted magistrates’ enquiry.
Even the hugely complicated Karachi-gate affair – in which Mr Sarkozy is implicated in bribes concerning arms sales to Pakistan – is being investigated at a snail’s pace. Dominique de Villepin, a former prime minister, last year successfully won the Clearstream Banking case – another scandal involving bribes which exposed alleged corruption at the highest levels of the French state.
One of the reasons Mr Sarkozy’s government has apparently got away with all this is because of the deferential attitude the French have towards the institution of the presidency. And haven’t France’s last two presidents known it? Mr Chirac was the man who put the bon into bon vivant. In his heyday he spent some €4,000 a day in “entertaining and food expenses”. On attaining office in 2007, Mr Sarkozy immediately enjoyed a sun-kissed holiday on the luxury yacht of a tycoon friend, and then increased his own pay.
Meanwhile, both men presided over administrations that have been chiefly noted for bureaucratic incompetence, foreign policy dithering, and street riots. Mr Chirac’s main rival in the 2002 presidential election was Jean-Marie Le Pen, and next year Le Pen’s daughter, Marine, will stand for president. The fact that the Front National (FN) remains a powerful electoral force sums up what a low point French politics has reached under both Mr Chirac and Mr Sarkozy.
While other countries embraced the global economy, and the opportunities available to an increasingly energetic workforce, both men allowed their country’s economy to stagnate under the weight of chauvinism, high taxes, over-regulation and a bloated public service.
All of this should be high in our minds as we consider Mr Chirac’s conviction. The UMP party is still running France and Mr Sarkozy retains the nickname of “President Bling-Bling”. The opulent lifestyle of the first family has often been compared to that of Louis XVI and his infamous Queen, Marie-Antoinette.
In a pertinent twist of history, Mr Chirac was tried in the same Paris courtroom where Marie-Antoinette was condemned to death by guillotine. His sentence may have been less horrific, but the conviction of Jacques Chirac was a momentous one. For French citizens who have become increasingly ashamed of what has been going on in their country, it could not have come a moment too soon.