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French ex-PM Fillon faces verdict in fraud trial

The scandal torpedoed former French prime minister Francois Fillon's 2017 presidential bid
The scandal torpedoed former French prime minister Francois Fillon's 2017 presidential bid STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN AFP/File
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Paris (AFP)

A French court is scheduled to give its verdict Monday in the trial of former premier Francois Fillon on charges of setting up a fake job for his wife, although the ruling could be delayed by a controversy over alleged pressure on prosecutors.

Fillion is accused of creating a post that paid his wife over one million euros in public funds, a scandal that torpedoed his 2017 presidential bid.

It is one of a number of fraud cases against senior politicians opened in recent months and seen by some as a test of whether the French elite can be held accountable.

But there is some doubt over whether the Paris court will deliver its ruling after a controversy erupted over alleged pressure on prosecutors.

The former head of the Financial Prosecutor's Office (PNF), Eliane Houlette, told lawmakers on June 10 she had met with "pressure" to bring charges quickly against Fillon.

Fillon's lawyers have demanded the trial start from scratch, and President Emmanuel Macron -- whose path to the Elysee Palace was cleared by Fillon's downfall -- has asked for an investigation.

The court will rule on Fillon's request at Monday's hearing. If accepted, a verdict may be delayed by months, but if the request is rejected it should come during the day.

- Risks jail -

Fillon, 66, was widely tipped to win the presidency when the Canard Enchaine newspaper reported that his wife Penelope had been his parliamentary assistant for 15 years -- except there was no evidence that she did any work.

The revelations dealt a body blow to Fillon's carefully honed image as a stern budgetary steward, despite his insistence that his wife had earned the 1.05 million euros ($1.2 million) she was paid from 1998 to 2013.

It later emerged Fillon had also used public money to pay two of his children a combined 117,000 euros for alleged sham work while he was a senator, before becoming premier in the government of then-president Nicolas Sarkozy.

Last but not least, he was accused of getting the millionaire owner of a literary magazine to pay his wife 135,000 euros for "consulting work" that was largely fake.

Prosecutors have demanded a five-year sentence for Fillon -- three years suspended and two behind bars -- as well as a 375,000 euro ($420,000) fine.

Penelope Fillon risks a three-year suspended sentence. A third defendant, Marc Joulaud -- who stood in for Fillon in parliament when he was a cabinet minister and also hired Penelope Fillon as an assistant -- faces a two-year suspended sentence.

The charges against the trio carry a maximum term of 10 years in prison.

- 'Penelopegate' -

"Penelopegate", as the scandal became known, torpedoed the career of one of France's rightwing stars, who was the youngest member of parliament when first elected at just 27 years old.

He met his Welsh-born wife while she was studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, and the couple soon married and moved to an imposing country estate near Le Mans where they raised their five children.

Penelope Fillon told the court she spent a lot of time sorting her husband's mail, attending public events near their rural manor and gathering information for his speeches.

But investigators seized on a 2016 newspaper interview in which she said: "Until now, I have never got involved in my husband's political life."

Fillon insists he was set up for "political assassination" by his rivals and was also the victim of a biased judiciary.

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