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ELECTION

Who is Penelope Fillon, the Welsh woman who was at the centre of a political scandal in France?

British-born Penelope Kathryn Fillon, the extremely publicity-averse wife of one-time presidential favourite François Fillon, was at the centre of a huge political scandal in France, dubbed "PenelopeGate". Here's what you need to know about her.

Who is Penelope Fillon, the Welsh woman who was at the centre of a political scandal in France?
Photos: AFP

Until she was embroiled in the scandal, for which she was handed a three-year suspended prison sentence Monday, Penelope Fillon has pretty much stayed out of the glare of the public eye in France.

“Up until now, I have never been involved in the political life of my husband”, she said in October 2016, which perhaps, given the accusations that she was indeed actually working for him, now seems a bizarre statement.

But before “Penelope Gate” kicked off in France in January 2017, everything was a little different.

She's “ultra-discreet”, Le Figaro newspaper has written in the past, and Le Parisien called her la femme de l'ombre (“the woman of the shadows”). Closer magazine even called her the “anti-Carla Bruni” late last year, in a reference to ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy's publicity hungry wife.

They were all talking about Penelope Kathryn Fillon, the 61-year-old Welshwoman who is married to François Fillon, the man who polls had at one point suggested would be France's next president.

Fillon himself has been handed a five year prison sentence, three of which were suspended.

After the satirical and investigative weekly Le Canard Enchaine broke the scandal, Francois Fillon's popularity plunged in the polls. He was eventually knocked out of the presidential race in the first round of voting by the far-right Marine Le Pen and the centrist newcomer Emmanuel Macron.
 
Fillon's surprise victory in the 2016 centre-right primary had prompted a host of articles about his partner as the media eyed up the country's possible next first lady.

Given her desire for a “life in the shadows” it's a fair assumption that the thought of her becoming France's first ever Welsh first lady probably terrified her. 

When Fillon became Prime Minister in 2007, she had this to say: “People are asking me what my new role is, but there isn't one.

“At the end of this week everything will calm down and I can go back to normal. People do not recognize me on the streets and I don't want to be (regognized). I would be terrified,” she said, before admitting to walking on the other side of the street to her husband sometimes.

But there were signs she was willing to embrace the spotlight a little.

She had even taken up a lead role by helping the group “Women with Fillon” (Les Femmes avec Fillon).
 
But how did a woman from the Welsh countryside end up as the one-time favourite to become France's first lady?
 
Born Penelope Clarke, she studied to be a lawyer in Wales before heading to France for a gap year in the late seventies where she met the man who was to become her husband. 
 
 
“It wasn't a particularly heart-stopping moment,” she later said in recalling her first meeting with Francois Fillon. 
 
However, the pair fell in love and thanks to Fillon's regular and determined trips across the Channel to woo her, she eventually moved to France, like many expats, on a one-way ticket. 
 
And the ties between the Clarkes and the Fillons were to grow even tighter with Penelope's sister wedding Fillon's younger brother Philippe a few years later. 
 
On French soil the Welsh woman never ditched her reserved, country-girl approach to life. She never worked as a lawyer and instead dedicated her life to raising their five children.
 
She has spent much of her time in France at the family home in Solesmes, north western France, where the couple own a chateau and where she helped raise her five children. 
 
 
In 2014 she was elected a municipal councillor in the town, a position that her husband once held. 

The fiercely private woman has rarely granted interviews, which is perhaps not surprising given the fact that the last time the Fillons let the press into their home they ended up getting mocked by the public. 
 
The Paris Match magazine ran a full page spread with a picture of the entire family in front of their countryside chateau with the caption: “To govern well, you need balance”.
A columnist at Nouvel Obs wrote that the spread was like a guide in “how to ruin your image”.
 
“Is there anyone actually steering Francois Fillon's communication team,” the paper asked, noting that by parading his wealth he was “cutting himself off from a huge majority of France's population.”
 
Fillon told the French media afterwards that he had no intentions of hiding who he really was. 
 
“I am not like some people who own a villa on the Riviera but who never lets it be seen,”  he said. 
 
Penelope Fillon has said in the past that her husband speaks English “very well”, though the family doesn't often speak it at home. 
 
“I've spent 35 years in the shadows, but now the challenge is different,” she told Le Figaro in an interview published late last year.
 
“Now Francois is running for president of the Republic.”
 
But then came Penelopegate. Fillon fiercely defended his wife throughout the scandal but at public appearances and rallies she appeared uneasy with the press attention.
 
She remained almost silent throughout the crisis, but did speak out on one occasion.

She told Le Journal du Dimanche she had carried out “a lot of different tasks” for her husband during his lengthy political career.

“He needed someone to do a lot of different tasks, and if it wasn't for me, he would have paid someone to do it, so we decided it would be me,” Penelope told the paper.

She urged her husband to “keep going to the end” but said only he could make the decision to stay in the race.

Fillon did keep going until the end but lost badly and is now heading to prison.

This article has been updated since it was first published in late 2016. 
 

POLITICS

EXPLAINED: Does France really have a hijab ban?

As Iranian women burn their hijabs in protest at the country's repressive laws you might have heard people contrasting this to the French 'hijab ban' - but is the Muslim headscarf actually banned in France?

EXPLAINED: Does France really have a hijab ban?

What are the rules? Does France have a hijab ban?

No, France does not have a ban on hijabs in public spaces. However, the rules differ when it comes to headscarves and full-face coverings and this can be confusing because both the full-face veil and the Muslim headscarf are often referred to a voile in French.

In 2010, the country brought in a complete ban on clothing that includes full-face coverings – including the burka and niqab. These cannot be worn in any public space in France, at risk of a €150 fine.

The hijab or headscarf, however, is completely legal in public spaces including shops, cafés and the streets and it’s common to see women wearing them, especially in certain areas of the big cities like Paris.

However, that doesn’t mean there is no restriction on women’s freedom to wear the Muslim headscarf.

In line with France’s laws on laïcité (secularism) it is forbidden to wear overt symbols of religion – including the Muslim headscarf – in government buildings, including schools and universities (with the exception of visitors).

Public officials such as teachers, firefighters or police officers are also barred from wearing any overt symbol of their religion while they are at work.

In 2004, President Jacques Chirac’s government banned all religious signs from state schools. While the law also banned crucifixes and kippas, “it was mostly aimed at girls wearing Muslim headscarves,” explained The Local’s columnist, John Lichfield.

Burkinis are also subject to certain rules. They are not allowed in public swimming pools in France where there are strict regulations regarding dress (Speedos only for men and compulsory swimming caps), but they are allowed on beaches and in other public spaces.

READ MORE: Burkini: Why is the French interior minister getting involved in women’s swimwear?

This became a source of controversy during the summer of 2022, when Grenoble challenged the ban on the full-body swimsuit by relaxing its rules on the swimwear permitted in public pools.

In response to the challenge, France’s highest administrative court voted to uphold the countrywide ban in June. 

What about in athletics?

Some federations, such as the French Football Federation, have banned players from wearing the hijab, along with other “ostentatious” religious symbols such as the Jewish kippa.

A women’s collective known as “les Hijabeuses” launched a legal challenge to the rules in November last year.

Other sports, such as handball and rugby, have a more open position.

Are there plans to change these rules? 

Currently, there are no government plans to reverse the ban on full-face coverings including the burka and niqab or to allow the symbols of religion in public buildings, like schools.

There have been attempts to change the current legal framework on the headscarf, however.

In 2021, Senators proposed an to the government’s “anti-separatism bill” that would ban girls under 18 wearing a hijab in public. Several other amendments also targeted Muslim women – such as banning mums from wearing the hijab when accompanying school trips – however these were all defeated in the Assemblée nationale and therefore did not become law.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What does laïcité (secularism) really mean in France?

Are the rules followed?

The rules around the niqab are generally followed and it has become quite rare in France.

However sociologist Agnès De Féo, believes that in the years following its ban, the full-face covering became more popular, rather than less.

She wrote that “the law had an incentive effect: it incited women to transgress the ban by embracing the prohibited object. Prohibition made the niqab more desirable and created a craze among some young women to defy the law.”

As of 2020, however, fewer women wore the niqab and burka in France than they did in 2009.

The rules around the wearing the headscarf in public buildings are generally respected, but it’s not uncommon for rules around any form of Muslim dress to be over-zealously interpreted – sometimes by accident, sometimes with a cynical political intent.

One key example was in 2019, when Julien Odoul, a member of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) party, caused widespread outrage after posting a video of himself confronting a headscarf-wearing woman who accompanied students on a field trip.

He cited “secular principles” – arguing that the headscarf’s ban in schools should also extend into school trips.

In response, the country’s Education Minister at the time, Jean-Michel Blanquer, clarified that that “the law does not prohibit women wearing headscarves to accompany children.”

There was also controversy at election time over candidates who appeared on posters wearing the hijab, although again this is perfectly legal and doe snot contravene secular principles. 

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