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Possible Chirac successor barred

In a blow to President Jacques Chirac and his conservative government, a court Friday convicted a key ally and potential successor, former Prime Minister Alain Juppe, in a party financing scandal and barred him from office.

Pale and close to tears, Juppe rushed out of the packed courtroom by a back door, his illustrious political career in tatters, after the three-judge panel found him guilty of overseeing the systematic use of public money to pay workers in Chirac's party.

The court in the Paris suburb of Nanterre sentenced Juppe, 58, to a suspended 18-month prison term for "illegally taking advantages." Its sternly worded verdict could doom any hope for Juppe, once one of France's brightest political stars, of ascending to the presidency.

"While vested with an elected public mandate, Alain Juppe betrayed the trust of the sovereign people," the ruling said. "The nature of the acts committed is intolerable to society."

Under French election law, the conviction bans Juppe, who serves as a legislator and mayor of Bordeaux, from voting for five years and holding office for 10.

The punishment was far heavier than the eight-month suspended sentence sought by the prosecution, which had suggested the judge omit any conviction from Juppe's record _ a loophole that would have left him free to pursue public life. The prosecutor had maintained it was up to voters, not a judge, to decide if someone should hold office.

Juppe's lawyer, Francis Szpiner, said he would appeal.

He attacked the judges' ruling as "questionable and unjust" and suggested it was politically motivated. "The court wanted to throw Mr. Juppe out of politics," Szpiner said.

The punishment will not take effect until a higher court rules on the appeal, which could take a year. If it rejects the appeal, Juppe's career would be finished, robbing Chirac of the man many consider his favorite to succeed him.

Juppe was Chirac's prime minister from 1995 to 1997.