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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

French left under pressure over violence against women

Two key parties in France's left-wing alliance were Wednesday facing crises after senior figures were accused of violence against women, with a Greens party chief stepping back from his role days after a colleague from hard-left France Unbowed.

French left under pressure over violence against women

Julien Bayou was “suspended from his role” as co-president of the Greens’ bloc in the National Assembly (lower house), the party said late Tuesday, after he was accused of psychologically abusing an ex-partner.

“We are a feminist party, and so we place ourselves at the service of women’s testimony… we acknowledged that the only way to show we weren’t pretending and weren’t hiding was a temporary suspension,” Sandra Regol, vice-president of the Green MPs’ group, told broadcaster Franceinfo on Wednesday.

One of the most prominent MPs of France Unbowed (LFI) — allied with the Greens in a broad left alliance against President Emmanuel Macron — Adrien Quatennens on Sunday admitted to slapping his wife.

He stepped down from a senior role as party coordinator.

Party leader and three-time presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon leapt to Quatennens’ defence on Twitter, blasting “police ill-will, media voyeurism and the social networks” while hailing his protege’s “dignity” and “courage”.

It was not until hours later that Melenchon posted another message gesturing towards Quatennens’ wife — too late for many critics.

Macron’s Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said Tuesday that it was “extremely shocking to have someone playing down domestic violence”.

And some 550 feminist activists on Wednesday co-signed an editorial in left-wing daily Liberation calling for Quatennens to resign his seat in parliament.

“When a political group supports a feminist programme, we have a right to expect that it stops protecting assaulters,” they wrote, listing a string of other left-wing figures who have been accused of assault and even rape.

“It’s not up to the assaulter’s friends to judge how serious the crime is and call for their private life to be respected. Private life is political.”

Both the Greens and LFI have set up internal panels to investigate allegations of sexual harassment and assault.

A report about Bayou was submitted to the ecologists’ panel in July, prompting allegations the probe had moved too slowly.”

These are volunteers working on cases that are sensitive by definition.

Calm and time are needed to gather testimony and take the necessary decisions,” said Marine Tondelier, expected to stand soon for leadership of the Greens.

Allegations that sexual harassment and even assault are rife in French politics stretch well beyond the left.

In July Damien Abad, a minister in centrist Macron’s freshly installed government, was forced to step down over rape allegations.

He denies the claims and has since returned to his seat in parliament.

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