A family affair: Nepotism in French politics goes beyond ‘Penelopegate’
Years after his retirement, a former parliamentary assistant to a conservative French senator recounts how he worked with the senator’s wife while she apparently did no work. But was paid with public funds all the same.
“When the “Penelopegate” scandal broke last month, Jean-François Nicolle experienced a sense of déjà-vu.
The 70-year-old retired French civil servant had been former Senator Jean-François Le Grand’s personal assistant for 17 years and he had first-hand experience of the nepotism underlining France’s latest political scandal.
The Penelopegate scandal is named after French presidential candidate François Fillon’s wife, Penelope, who is accused of earning 830,000 euros for a “fake job” as her husband’s parliamentary assistant.
Speaking to FRANCE 24, Nicolle noted that when he started working with Le Grand, he discovered he had another parliamentary assistant colleague: Monique Le Grand, the senator’s wife.
"She was already working there when I started in 1987. She was recruited as soon as he [her husband] was elected in 1982," said Nicolle.
Hiring family members is legal for French MPs and not against parliamentary rules, as long as the person is genuinely employed.
But Nicolle maintains that Monique Le Grand -- like Penelope Fillon – was being paid for a job she never did. “It's simple, in my 30 years in the profession, I never saw her work in the Senate,” he explained. “I used to see her when I was in Lessay, I would take her to the station on Monday mornings."
Lessay is a small town in Le Grand’s Manche constituency in northwestern France. Nicolle’s working time was divided between an office in Lessay and the Senate office in Paris.
The senator’s wife was supposed to be working in Paris, but Nicolle maintains that she was never in the Senate office located in the upscale rue de Vaugirard in the heart of the French capital.
Another parliamentary assistant, Catherine Burais, now aged 45, also worked for Sen. Le Grand between 1996 and 2007 in the Lessay office. She recalled that when the Senate mail from Paris arrived at the Lessay office, “Monique Le Grand used to call me to ask if we had received any invitations to cocktail parties," said Burais, who has since filed a lawsuit against her former employer.
At that time, the "non-family" parliamentary assistants rarely discussed the issue amongst themselves.
"We were doing our job, that's all," said Nicolle. "It was not a taboo subject in that milieu, it was just clear -- and clear to everyone. It’s just shocking for people who are not aware of this practice.”
Now the children as well
Hiring family members is both legal and widespread among French politicians. The French office for transparency in public life estimates that at least 20% of France’s 577 deputies have at some point paid a member of their immediate family and about 60 senators (out of 348) had done likewise.
But while the practice is common, it is also widely unpopular in France. Amid mounting public anger against the country’s entitled political elites, Fillon’s poll ratings plummeted in the aftermath of the “fake jobs” scandal. The man once widely tipped to be the country’s next president is now trailing in third place behind independent candidate Emmanuel Macron, making it more difficult for Fillon to reach the presidential runoff in May.
The conservative presidential candidate, who has campaigned on a platform of integrity, has been further hit by allegations that he hired his two oldest children, supposedly for their legal expertise, although they were both still in law school at the time.
The widening of the Fillon investigation to include his children is not suprising to Nicolle. According to the retired civil servant, his former boss Le Grand also hired his son, Philippe Le Grand, in a regional council body charged with installing fiber optic cables in his Manch constituency.
‘What’s the problem?’
Drawing parallels between his work experience and the unraveling Penelopegate scandal, Nicolle laughs ruefully. "It was our very own Penelope," he noted. "She was employed for 30 years with a salary of nearly 2,000 euros per month after tax. Taken together, that’s around a million euros.”
Nevertheless Nicolle still has a good relationship with Monique Le Grand, who has since separated from her husband. "I often told her that she did not even know the postal code of Lessay," he chuckled.
For his part, the former conservative senator dismisses any comparisons with the Penelopegate scandal. "She was really working with me in my office in Paris," said Le Grand of his ex-wife, adding that she earned a net salary of around 1,000 euros per month to manage his mail and agenda in Paris.
Monique Le Grand agrees. "He needed someone in Paris to answer the phone,” she told FRANCE 24. “I was in the Senate on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and sometimes even on Fridays,” she said. When asked about her reimbursements, she however said she had forgotten the precise amount, but estimated that it was "a decent salary close to 2,000 euros net [per month], lower than my colleagues.”
Years later, she simply cannot understand the fuss around the Fillon investigations. "Where’s the problem?" she asked. "For years, parliamentarians have had their wives and children work during their studies, and this was not unusual."
Nicolle however has no problem understanding the angry public response to the entrenched nepotism in French political circles. In 2004, he was dismissed from his position as parliamentary assistant and replaced by the senator’s son-in-law.
Burais, who worked with the news parliamentary assistant for several months, remembers a man who was "absent every other day, sometimes the entire week."
Confronted with these allegations, former senator Le Grand appeared contrite. "Working as a family was a mistake," he acknowledged. "We must put an end to these outdated practices."
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