Rex non potest peccare – the doctrine in Roman law that gives the head of state sovereign immunity – is still applicable, in one form or other, even in some countries with republican constitutions, such as France. For four decades it has protected the former president, Jacques Chirac, from prosecution for crimes committed when he was mayor of Paris from 1977 to 1995, i.e., before he became president.
On December 15 he was found guilty in two related cases involving nineteen totally or partially fake jobs created for his benefit at the RPR party, which he led as Paris mayor. He was convicted of embezzling public funds, abuse of trust and illegal conflict of interest.
Chirac became France’s first former leader to be convicted since Marshal Philippe Pétain, who headed the Nazi collaborationist regime during World War II, in 1945. Chirac will not go to prison, but received a two-year suspended sentence. At 79, he is in poor health and suffers from lapses of memory.
In a statement hours after the decision, Chirac said that he categorically contested the verdict but would not appeal.
Critics hailed the decision as measured and courageous. They said the court showed how political elites and average citizens were equal under the law. Anti-corruption crusaders, long frustrated by dirty dealings in the French political machine, rejoiced.
The newspaper Libération wrote the day after the verdict that France desperately needed a debate on the legal status of the president.
“The problem with the Chirac affair is the accusation that the judiciary has a double standard. And yesterday’s verdict has not solved the problem entirely…. What is the penal status of the head of state? Clearly it’s unreasonable to imagine that the president could be held legally responsible just like anyone else. But there is a considerable gap between this impossibility and the quasi immunity that Jacques Chirac has benefited from for almost twenty years. No doubt the finest legal and constitutional minds will be able – in fact they’ve already done it – to imagine a different legal status for the head of state that allows any questions about the influence of this institutional eccentricity on the course of democracy to be circumvented.”