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article imageFraud ruling looms for former French PM Fillon

By Joseph Schmid (AFP)     Jun 26, 2020 in World

A French court gives its verdict Monday in the trial of former premier Francois Fillon on charges of setting up a fake job for his wife that paid her over a million euros in public funds, a scandal that demolished his 2017 presidential bid.

Fillon, 66, was widely tipped to win 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 earned the 1.05 million euros ($1.2 million) she was paid from 1998 to 2013.

They also cast a harsh spotlight on decades of nepotism within the French political class, an issue that fuelled the "yellow vest" anti-government protests of 2018-19.

It later emerged that Fillon also used public money to pay two of his children a combined 117,000 euros for allegedly sham work while he was a senator, before he became premier in the government of 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.

The owner of La Revue des Deux Mondes, Marc Ladreit de Lacharriere, pleaded guilty to the charges in December 2018, and was given a suspended eight-month prison sentence and a 375,000 euro fine.

His conviction loomed large over the Fillons' trial earlier this year, when their lawyers struggled to provide documented evidence of Penelope Fillon's work.

Prosecutors noted that her parliamentary assistant contract ended in 2013, when a new French transparency law requiring politicians to declare all their earnings came into effect.

The Fillons and 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, face up to 10 years in prison on charges including misuse of public funds and conspiracy.

If found guilty, they may also face a hefty bill -- France's National Assembly has joined the case as a civil party, and said it could seek over one million euros in compensation.

- 'Penelopegate' -

An avowed Catholic who campaigned as a man of integrity, Fillon has also been charged for failing to declare an interest-free loan of 50,000 euros from Ladreit de Lacharriere in 2013.

"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.

Those claims were revived this month when the former head of the Financial Prosecutor's Office (PNF) told lawmakers she had sustained "pressure" aimed at bringing charges quickly against Fillon.

Fillon's lawyers have demanded his case be reopened 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 the request at Monday's hearing.

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