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France’s former PM François Fillon goes on trial over ‘fake jobs’ scandal

Francois Fillon and his wife, Penelope, during the 2017 presidential campaign.
Francois Fillon and his wife, Penelope, during the 2017 presidential campaign. © POOL/AFP/File

France’s disgraced conservative former prime minister François Fillon went on trial Wednesday over the fake-jobs scandal dubbed PenelopeGate after his wife, who was paid handsomely for work as her husband’s parliamentary assistant that she allegedly never performed. The scandal sunk Fillon’s 2017 presidential bid. 

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Penelope Fillon and the prime minister’s former parliamentary aide, Marc Joulaud, are co-defendants in the case.

François Fillon’s aspirations to win the 2017 election were destroyed after Le Canard Enchaîné, a satirical weekly known for its investigative journalism and political scoops, reported that his wife had been paid hundreds of thousands of euros for doing little work, though she had been employed as his parliamentary assistant for several years.

The paper went on to report that Fillon had also employed two of his five children as parliamentary assistants while he was a senator, earning them a total of €84,000 between 2005 and 2007.

FRANCE - Ex-premier Francois Fillon and his wife go on trial

The trial had been suspended for two days due to a lawyers' strike over pension reform. It kicked off on Wednesday with technical arguments as to whether some of the alleged crimes happened too long ago to be prosecuted under France's statute of limitations, and how to define the crime of misappropriating public funds.

The court must now decide these issues before it can examine the merits of the case.

Fillon, 65, is charged with misusing public funds, conspiracy and failing to report the details of his financial situation to a French watchdog. He faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a fine of €1 million. His Welsh-born wife is being charged with concealing the misuse of public funds.

Prime minister from 2007 to 2012 under then president Nicolas Sarkozy, Fillon was a favorite to win the Élysée Palace when the story broke. He quickly denounced the revelations as a campaign of political dirty tricks, and resisted pressure from within his party, Les Républicains, to pull out of the race.

PenelopeGate was all the more destructive for Fillon, and subsequently for his party, since he had presented himself during the primary as the candidate unsullied by the scandals that surrounded Sarkozy, his rival and former boss.

“Who would have imagined, for one small instant, General de Gaulle being indicted?” Fillon famously asked at one campaign event, taking a direct jab at Sarkozy. He then added: “There’s no use talking about authority if you’re not irreproachable yourself.”

Historic defeat

Polls at the time showed an easy victory for Fillon in a likely second round against the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.

But the affair cost him a historic defeat in the first round of the elections and dealt a severe blow to his party, marking the first time since the creation of the French Fifth Republic in 1958 that there was no representative from the country’s main centre-right party in the second round.

“It was said to be a fight the right could not lose, which has ended in a lamentable fiasco,” said Jean-François Copé, the party’s former leader, at the time.

“The right has been swept away... The right has just experienced its April 21,” he added, referring to April 21, 2002, when Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin was knocked out in the first round by far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, father of Marine and founder of the National Front party.

'Fillon was seen as the favourite' in 2017 race before fake jobs scandal, journalist Richard Werly recalls

Fillon, who now works for the investment management firm Tikehau Capital, has largely kept quiet about the scandal in the three years since his indictment. But on January 30 he gave an interview on France 2 television and once again denied that his wife had been paid as a parliamentary assistant who did little actual work.

“She was my main and most important staff member... I will provide proof during the trial,” he said. 

But Penelope herself told the The Telegraph in 2007 that she had never worked as her husband’s assistant. Asked about her role, she told the British paper, “I have never been actually his assistant or anything like that. I don't deal with his communication.”

But her lawyer, Pierre Cornut-Gentille, defended his client, saying her comments were taken out of context.

‘Common practice’

Fillon’s supporters insisted that the timing of the revelations and the accusations against him were no more than a political ploy, and that what he had done was simply common practice.

“The accusations are made right now, as if by chance, in order to distract and hide the fraud that took place in the [then ruling] Socialist Party primaries, when in fact, employing one’s spouse is common practice, and not only in Parliament,” Patrick Devedjian, an MP for Les Républicains told Le Figaro daily in an interview in January 2017, after the scandal broke.

It was, in fact, legal for MPs to hire family members when Fillon hired his wife and children – as long as they actually worked.

The laws have since changed. After President Emmanuel Macron’s election, and on the heels of PenelopeGate, new laws, aimed at restoring “confidence in public life” were passed in September 2017 that forbid MPs, senators, or cabinet members from employing any close family members.

The new laws also changed the way politicians managed their expenses. Before PenelopeGate, each MP and senator in France received an allowance to cover costs and staff. There was little supervision over how this allowance was spent, and it was common for elected officials to use it for their personal benefit. Since the 2017 laws were passed, elected officials no longer receive an allowance up front and instead are reimbursed for their expenses only upon producing receipts and justifications.

With its ruling on the Fillon affair, the Paris criminal court will decide whether the “common practice” claim – that a lack of transparency and corruption were common in his day – is a strong enough defence.
 

 

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