Macron orders inquiry after ex-prosecutor decries political ‘pressure’ in Fillon probe

François Fillon and his wife Penelope at the Paris tribunal, February 27, 2020.
François Fillon and his wife Penelope at the Paris tribunal, February 27, 2020. © Stéphane de Sakutin, AFP

In a twist in the fake jobs trial of former French prime minister François Fillon, President Emmanuel Macron asked on Friday the Supreme Judicial Council to investigate a former top prosecutor’s allegations that political pressure was put on the criminal justice system in the early months of the process, when Fillon was a candidate in the 2017 presidential election.

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One of the most sensational stories in French politics roared back to life when magazine Le Point reported on Wednesday that Elaine Houlette – who was head of France’s office of financial prosecutions from 2014 to 2019 – said that she was put under “enormous pressure” and “very tight control” by her boss, Paris Attorney-General Catherine Champrenault, during the Fillon investigation in the early months of 2017.

Speaking to a parliamentary committee on the independence of the judiciary on June 10, Houlette suggested that Champrenault made her speed up the inquiry with demands that it be conducted “fast” during this period – when the conservative Fillon was running in that year’s presidential contest. The Paris attorney-general reports directly to the justice minister.

The criminal justice system has “seldom acted so quickly” in response to an alleged political scandal as it did in the Fillon case, noted left-wing paper Libération.

‘The truth is coming’

Houlette’s statement to the parliamentary committee provoked fierce reactions from politicians across the political spectrum. Éric Woerth, an LR MP and the treasurer of Fillon’s 2017 campaign, said that any “acceleration” of the justice process was designed to “end his presidential candidacy”.

“When we denounce the political use of the justice system, people call us conspiracy theorists,” tweeted Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Rassemblement National (formerly the Front National). “The truth is now emerging – and this is only the tip of the iceberg.”

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the far-left La France Insoumise (LFI), tweeted: “The former head of the financial crime bureau admitted to having acted under pressure in the Fillon affair. Who was responsible? The chief prosecutor who ordered the odious searches against LFI. The truth is coming.” In 2018, raids were conducted at Mélenchon’s home and LFI property as part of a probe into financial propriety.

In response to this outcry, on June 19 Macron asked the Supreme Judicial Council – an independent body which regulates the justice system – to launch an inquiry to “remove any doubt about the independence and impartiality of the judiciary” in the Fillon case.

Penelopegate

As the candidate for right-wing party Les Républicains (LR), the ex-PM was riding high in the polls as the favourite to win the presidential elections – until January of that year, when satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné published an article accusing Fillon of employing his wife Penelope as his “parliamentary assistant” for a total salary of €500,000 (prosecutors now say it was around €1 million), despite her apparently doing negligible work in such a role.

The paper also found documents suggesting that she was paid a total of €100,000 over several years as an “adviser” for the literary publication Revue des Deux Mondes, owned by an associate of Fillon. Again, it appeared that she had done little actual work. A fortnight later, Le Canard Enchaîné found that two of his children were paid €84,000 from state coffers for similar roles, despite apparently doing barely any work.

A preliminary hearing immediately opened. “Penelopegate”, as the French press dubbed it, kyboshed Fillon’s attempt to take the Élysée Palace; his poll ratings crumbled. In many respects it had been an impressive campaign. Few political pundits had expected Fillon’s resounding win in the 2016 LR primary over both his former boss, ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, and Bordeaux mayor Alain Juppé, an emollient centrist. Fillon then established a clear poll lead with a vision to reform France, using classically liberal policies to shrink the state and inject more dynamism into the economy.

In the wake of Penelopegate, Macron replaced Fillon as the frontrunner before seizing the crown in the May elections, with a similar agenda to liberalise the French economy, couched in centrist marketing. After refusing to stand down as the Républicains candidate, Fillon was eliminated in the first round after coming third.

The trial started in February 2020. Fillon has consistently denied any criminal wrongdoing, saying that he was the victim of a politically motivated dirty tricks campaign, although he has admitted “making mistakes”. The verdict is expected on June 29.

On Friday, Houlette clarified that the “pressures” she referred to were “purely procedural” – and that Fillon was not charged “at the request of” the government or “under pressure” from it.

For her part, Champrenault said the same day that her actions during the Fillon inquiry were just part of the “usual functioning” of the criminal justice system.

 

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