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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

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

Bikini, topless, swimsuit, wetsuit, burkini - what women wear to go swimming in France is apparently the business of the Interior Minister. Here's why.

Burkini: Why is the French interior minister getting involved in women's swimwear?

It’s a row that erupts regularly in France – the use of the ‘burkini’ swimsuit for women – but this year there is an added wrinkle thanks to the country’s new anti-separatism law.

What has happened?

Local authorities in Grenoble, eastern France, have updated the rules on swimwear in municipal pools.

French pools typically have strict rules on what you can wear, which are set by the local authority.

For women the rule is generally a one-piece swimsuit or bikini, but not a monokini – the term in France for wearing bikini bottoms only, or going topless. For men it’s Speedos and not baggy swim-shorts and many areas also stipulate a swimming cap for both sexes.

These rules typically apply only to local-authority run pools, if you’re in a privately-owned pool such as one attached to a hotel, spa or campsite then it’s up to the owners to decide the rules and if you’re lucky enough to have a private pool then obviously you can wear (or not wear) what you want.

READ ALSO Why are the French so obsessed with Speedos?

Now authorities in Grenoble have decided to relax their rules and allow baggy swim shorts for men while women can go topless (monokini) or wear the full-cover swimsuit known as the ‘burkini’. This is essentially a swimsuit that has arms and legs, similar in shape to a wetsuit but made of lighter fabric, while some types also have a head covering.

Is this a problem?

No-one seems to have had an issue with the swim shorts or the topless rule, but the addition of the ‘burkini’ to the list of accepted swimwear has caused a major stir, with many lining up to condemn the move.

Those against it insist that it’s not about comfy swimwear, it’s about laïcité – that is, the French secularism rules that also outlaw the wearing of religious clothing such as the Muslim headscarf and the Jewish kippah in State spaces such as schools and government offices.

READ ALSO Laïcité: How does France’s secularism law work?

The burkini is predominantly worn by Muslim women, although some non-Muslim women also prefer it because it’s more modest and – for outdoor pools – provides better sun protection. 

Grenoble’s mayor Eric Piolle, one of the country’s highest profile Green politicians who leads a broad left-wing coalition locally, has championed the city’s move as a victory.

“All we want is for women and men to be able to dress how they want,” Piolle told broadcaster RMC.

Is this France’s first burkini row?

Definitely not, the modest swimsuit has been causing a stir for some years now.

In 2016 several towns in the south of France attempted to ban the burkini on their beaches. This went all the way to the Constitutional Court, which ruled that such a ban was unconstitutional, and the State cannot dictate what people wear on the beach.

The situation in municipal pools is slightly different in that local authorities can make their own rules under local bylaws. Most pools don’t explicitly ban the burkini, but instead list what is acceptable – and that’s usually either a one-piece swimsuit or a bikini. These decisions are taken on hygiene, not religious, grounds.

The northwestern city of Rennes quietly updated its pool code in 2019 to allow burkinis and other types of swimwear, which seems to have passed unnoticed until the Grenoble row erupted.

Why is the Interior Minister getting involved?

What’s different about the latest row is the direct involvement of the Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin. He appears to have no objection to topless swimming in Grenoble, but he is very upset about women covering up when going for a dip.

No, he’s not some kind of creepy beauty pageant judge from the 1970s – he’s upset about laïcité.

Darmanin called the decision “an unacceptable provocation” that is “contrary to our values”.

He has ordered the local Préfet to open a review of the decision, and later announced that prosecutors had opened an inquiry into Alliance Citoyenne, a group that supports the wearing of burkinis in pools.

And the reason that he gets to intervene directly on the issue of local swimming pools rules is France’s ‘anti-separatism’ law that was passed in 2020.

This wide-ranging law covers all sorts of issues from radical preaching in mosques to home-schooling, but it also bans local councils from agreeing to ‘religious demands’ and among its provisions it allows the Interior Minister to intervene directly on certain issues.

So far this power has been used mostly to deal with extremism in mosques, several of which have been closed down for short periods while extremist preachers were removed.

Darmanin’s foray into women’s swimwear seems to represent an extension of the use of these powers. 

Is this all because there is an election coming up?

Parliamentary elections are coming up in June and the political temperature is rising. It’s certainly noticeable that in Darmanin’s initial tweet about the matter he referred to Grenoble mayor Eric Piolle as a “supporter of Mélenchon”, although Piolle is actually a member of the Green party.

Mélenchon and his alliance of leftist parties are currently the main rival for Macron’s LREM at the parliamentary elections. 

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