The government of President Emmanuel Macron of France dodged a blow on Wednesday when a special court ruled that the justice minister was not guilty of using his position to settle scores.
The minister, Éric Dupond-Moretti, a former star criminal defense lawyer who often sparred with prosecutors and judges, was charged with using his new position in 2020 as a weapon to order investigations into four magistrates whom he had recently clashed with.
The court ruled that while Mr. Dupond-Moretti was in conflict of interest in his role as justice minister, he had not intended to abuse his power. The minister had never expressed “animosity, contempt or a desire for revenge” toward the four magistrates, the president of the court said. He added that Mr. Dupond-Moretti had not been “warned” of the conflict of interest by his staff.
The case was the first in which a sitting French minister had to face trial before a special court for alleged crimes connected to their official duties. Mr. Dupond-Moretti continued in his role as justice minister throughout the 10-day trial.
From the start, he claimed the case was a malicious attempt to humiliate and push him to resign.
He stood alone at a glass lectern in the center of a gilded room in the century-old Paris court building to receive the verdict on Wednesday. Afterward, he swept past the throngs of reporters clogging the hall outside, uncharacteristically leaving others to speak for him.
“For all those years, he was branded and presented as guilty before any trial,” one of Mr. Dupond-Moretti’s lawyers, Jacqueline Laffont, said to the bush of outstretched microphones. She added, “Justice has now been delivered.”
Later, in an interview with the television station France 2, Mr. Dupond-Moretti said the trial had been both a hardship and a relief, as it had taken three years to get the chance to explain himself.
“I want to turn the page, even if it was painful,” he added. “I want to pick up the ordinary course of my work.”
Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne, who had said that a guilty verdict would require Mr. Dupond-Moretti’s resignation, announced that she was “delighted” by the ruling. “The Minister of Justice will be able to continue to carry out his action within the government team, in the service of the French,” she wrote on X, formerly Twitter.
The case against Mr. Dupond-Moretti did not directly threaten Mr. Macron, who has been given the moniker “Jupiter” for his top-down style of governing. Vincent Martigny, a professor of political science at the University of Nice, said: “Everything revolves around the president. There are few ministers that matter in this government.”
He added, “Dupond-Moretti is a member of civil society who recently came into politics.”
Still, losing one of the few ministers who are recognizable to the general public and who revel in parliamentary clashes with Mr. Macron’s opponents would have been an aggravating force for the French president.
Reacting to the court’s decision, many left-wing politicians and anti-corruption advocacy groups complained that the court — the Court of Justice of the Republic — was inherently impartial, a common criticism that has led a number of presidential candidates, including Mr. Macron, to call for its abolition.
Over three decades, the court has tried fewer than a dozen cabinet ministers, has never sentenced someone to prison and has often waived even suspended sentences.
The court was created to try government cabinet members for offenses allegedly committed while in their official roles. It is made up of three professional judges and 12 lawmakers. They all regularly interact with Mr. Dupond-Moretti in their jobs as senators and representatives, but in their temporary role as black-robed justices, they took an oath to conduct themselves “as worthy and loyal magistrates.”
Jérôme Karsenti, the lawyer for the nonprofit anticorruption association that lodged a complaint that led to the court case against Mr. Dupond-Moretti, called the verdict proof that the court was biased.
“We know that decisions are not based on the law, but often on political reasons and motives,” Mr. Karsenti told reporters huddled inside the court building. “There is never any real surprise before the Court of Justice of the Republic,” said, adding that it was lenient “toward elected representatives.”
While the court cleared Mr. Dupond-Moretti of any wrongdoing, the verdict is unlikely to thin the bad blood between the justice minister and magistrates, some of whom were awkwardly called to testify.
The president of the country’s biggest union of judges declared on the radio that Mr. Dupond-Moretti’s appointment to the role of justice minister in 2020 is “a declaration of war against the judiciary,” as he “despises judges” and “does not hesitate to insult them.”
But Mr. Dupond-Moretti, who told France 2 he had never offered his resignation to Mr. Macron, brushed off any suggestion that the road ahead was still fraught because of those tense relations.
“I was never at war with anyone,” he said.