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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. 
 
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READER QUESTIONS

Reader question: Why does secular France have Catholic holidays?

You might not have thought about it too much as you enjoyed an extra day off work, but it is perhaps unexpected that France - proudly secular since 1905 - has so many public holidays based around Catholic festivals.

Reader question: Why does secular France have Catholic holidays?

Reader question: Why does France have Catholic holidays like Ascension, Assumption and Toussaints? I thought it was supposed to be a secular republic?

The French Republic is very proud of its secular principles but yet as some readers observed, many public holidays are linked to Catholic celebrations, a reminder of its religious history.

Roughly half of the public holidays in France represent Catholic events: Easter, Ascension (May 26th), Assumption (August 15th), Pentecost (for some people), All Saints’ day (November 1st) and of course Christmas.

If you live in Alsace-Moselle (formerly Alsace-Lorraine) you get two extra holidays, both religious ones – Good Friday (the Friday before Easter) and St Stephen’s Day (December 26th) – more on why that is later.

France’s secular stance takes its roots in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 but was formally codified into law in 1905. 

France does not recognise, pay or subsidise any religion. So French local and national governments are not allowed to finance churches, mosques, synagogues or temples, and religious symbolism is not allowed in State buildings or for representatives of the State.

It is these rules that mean that, for example, French primary schools don’t perform nativity plays at Christmas and French female police officers are not permitted to wear the Muslim headscarf while on duty.

EXPLAINED What does France’s secularism really mean?

The flip side of this is that freedom of worship is also protected in the 1905 law, and everyone is allowed to practice whatever religion they choose in their private life.

The only exception to the secular rules are the three departments of Alsace-Moselle. When the 1905 law was passed the region was part of Germany and only became French again at the end of World War I. As part of the compromise agreed, today bishops, priests, rabbis and pastors have the status of civil servants and the state pays for the maintenance of religious buildings. Religious education in public schools is also preserved.

So all that seems to pretty strongly suggest that Catholic festivals should play no part in France’s holiday calendar and only the secular events – such as the Fête nationale on July 14th or VE Day on May 8th – should remain.

However, by the time secularism was formally codified into law in 1905 there was already a fairly fixed calendar of holidays and festivals – although this had already been slimmed down under the Napoleonic government in 1802 – and suddenly axing popular festivals was likely to go down pretty badly with the population at large.

Essentially then, this was a pragmatic compromise between tradition and secularism and over the years politicians have been understandably reluctant to tell the French they must lose their holidays.

But it’s noticeable that all the religious festivals in the calendar are Christian ones, and while this may reflect France’s history it’s not so representative of the current demographics, where an estimated 10 percent of the population either practice the Muslim faith or have a Muslim family background.

So could we see a scenario when we knock Ascension on the head but make Eid a public holiday?

It’s theoretically possible – in 2015 the French parliament voted through an amendment that would allow the départments of France’s Overseas Territories (Martinique, Gaudeloupe, Mayotte, Réunion and French Guiana) to switch a Catholic bank holiday for another religious celebration to suit different faiths in the local population.

However none of the overseas départements has yet made that move. 

A fresh amendment would be required to make the same move in mainland France, and there appears to be little political appetite for that at present.

What are France’s public holidays? 

  • January 1st: New Year’s Day
  • Good Friday (the Friday before Easter Monday, only a holiday in Alsace-Lorraine)
  • Easter Monday (movable date)
  • May 1st: May Day
  • May 8th: VE Day
  • May 26th: Ascension Day
  • Pentecost (movable date and no longer an official holiday)
  • July 14th – Bastille Day
  • August 15th – Assumption
  • November 1st – All Saints
  • November 11th – Armistice Day
  • December 25th – Christmas
  • December 26th – St Stephen’s Day (only a holiday in Alsace-Lorraine)
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