French justice minister accused of abusing office cleared by court

FILE - French Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti arrives for a ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe, as part of the commemorations marking the 105th anniversary of the Nov. 11, 1918 Armistice, ending World War I, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023 in Paris. A special court cleared Tuesday, Nov.29, 2023 France's justice minister Eric Dupond-Moretti, ruling he was not guilty of having used his office to settle personal scores. (Ludovic Marin/Pool via AP, File)
FILE - French Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti arrives for a ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe, as part of the commemorations marking the 105th anniversary of the Nov. 11, 1918 Armistice, ending World War I, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023 in Paris. A special court cleared Tuesday, Nov.29, 2023 France's justice minister Eric Dupond-Moretti, ruling he was not guilty of having used his office to settle personal scores. (Ludovic Marin/Pool via AP, File)

PARIS -- A special court cleared France's justice minister of conflict of interest on Wednesday, ruling that he was innocent of having used his office to settle personal scores, the first such trial of a French government minister while still in office.

Eric Dupond-Moretti had denied wrongdoing and refused to resign before or during his two-week trial, defying what had been an unwritten rule until recent years that members of government quit when put under investigation.

Wednesday's verdict was a political victory for him and his allies.

Dupond-Moretti, speaking on France 2 television, said "this trial was an ordeal for me and at the same time a relief because I'd been waiting ... for over 3 years to explain myself."

"I want to turn the page ... and resume the ordinary course of my work," he added. "It's a good thing I wasn't forced to resign, since I'm innocent tonight."

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said she was happy to say that Dupond-Moretti would stay on in his role.

"The justice minister will now be able to continue his work as part of the government team. ... I am delighted," she said on X, formerly Twitter.

A high-profile lawyer before his time in government, Dupond-Moretti had been accused of abusing his position to order probes targeting magistrates who investigated him, his friends and his former clients.

He was tried in a special court for alleged wrongdoing by the government created in 1993, the Court of Justice of the Republic.

Three professional magistrates joined by 12 members of parliament -- six from the lower house and six from the Senate -- heard the case, and a majority of eight votes was required to decide on the question of guilt.

The proceedings marked the first time in modern France that a government minister was put on trial while still in office for actions taken as a minister, according to legal historians. The court previously tried 11 former government members, and convicted seven of them, over the past three decades.

Dupond-Moretti left the court a few minutes after the verdict without speaking.

Defense lawyer Jacqueline Laffont expressed "satisfaction" and "huge emotion" at the decision, which she said showed her client "for three years had been unjustly accused."

"It is the victory of law ... also the victory of the separation of powers," Laffont said, adding: "Law triumphed and justice triumphed."

Remi Lorrain, also a defense lawyer, added that the verdict is a "surprise only for those who misunderstood."

He said the ruling shows Dupond-Moretti "never wanted to take revenge on anyone."

Dupond-Moretti was appointed justice minister in the government of President Emmanuel Macron in July 2020. A few months later, two magistrates' unions and an anti-corruption association, Anticor, filed complaints against him.

The lawyer for magistrates' unions, Christophe Clerc, said the verdict represented "imperfect justice," but said that the group believes that the prosecution could deter conflicts of interest in the future.

Anticor posted a statement on its X account noting with regret that the ruling was made by a special court for government ministers. "Justice for ministers is unfortunately a political justice, in clear violation of the principle of equality before the law," the group said.

Anti-corruption group Transparency International France called in a statement for "reinforced ethical vigilance," especially when newly appointed government members are making their "first steps."

Information for this article was contributed by Elaine Ganley and Oleg Cetinic of The Associated Press.

  photo  FILE - French Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti , left, arrives at Paris court house, in Paris, Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023. A special court cleared Tuesday, Nov.29, 2023 France's justice minister Eric Dupond-Moretti, ruling he was not guilty of having used his office to settle personal scores. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena, File)