PARIS - A French court on Wednesday acquitted France's justice minister in a conflict of interest trial that has been an embarrassment for President Emmanuel Macron's government.
Eric Dupond-Moretti, a pugnacious former star defence lawyer, had in 2021 been charged with misusing his position to settle scores with judges who investigated him during his legal career.
His acquittal "is clearly very satisfying," one of his lawyers, Jacqueline Laffont, told reporters, adding that "this is what we hoped for, and what the law demanded".
Dupond-Moretti stood trial before the Court of Justice of the Republic (CJR), which judges incumbent or former ministers for alleged offences committed while in office.
He is the first sitting French justice minister to have stood trial.
Dupond-Moretti's case related to administrative inquiries on the minister's watch into three judges.
The three judges had ordered police in 2014 to examine the phone records of dozens of lawyers and magistrates, including Dupond-Moretti, as part of an investigation into former president Nicolas Sarkozy.
The judiciary had accused the minister, who also ordered a fourth judge to be investigated in an unrelated case, of a witch hunt, while he retorted that his accusers were "biased".
"For me and my loved ones this trial is an infamy," Dupond-Moretti said at the start of proceedings earlier this month.
Technically, Dupond-Moretti faced up to five years in prison, a fine of up to 500,000 euros (around $547,000) and a ban from holding public office, if found guilty.
But the prosecutor -- while saying that Dupond-Moretti had "crossed lines that he never should have crossed" -- recommended a one-year suspended prison sentence for the 62-year-old.
- 'Clear rule' -
Macron and Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne publicly supported Dupond-Moretti throughout the case.
But when asked whether Dupond-Moretti would have to resign if convicted, Borne said there was a "clear rule", which was interpreted as meaning that he would have to go.
Macron was to meet with Dupond-Moretti at the Elysee palace later on Wednesday, the president's office said.
Dupond-Moretti has stirred controversy as a minister, including for allegedly sexist remarks towards women reporters and for an offensive hand gesture during a parliamentary debate.
Around 20 witnesses were summoned to testify in the case, including ex-prime minister Jean Castex and former high court chief prosecutor Francois Molins.
The CJR, which is often criticised for being soft on government members, is made up of three magistrates and 12 members of parliament.
In its reasoning for the verdict, the court said that while there had been "material evidence" pointing to a conflict of interest, there was no proof that Dupond-Moretti had intentionally misused his position.
At no point had the minister expressed "any animosity, disdain or desire for vengeance" towards the judges that had investigated him.
Deputies for the far-left LFI party quickly condemned the verdict, saying the CJR was "systematically partial" and that the trial had delivered "a clear demonstration" of Dupond-Moretti's guilt.
In a statement, the LFI parliamentary group also called for the CJR to be dissolved.