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Fillon goes on trial in Paris for scandal that changed French politics

It was the scandal that turned the 2017 French presidential election on its head, sweeping away the favourite and allowing relative newcomer Emmanuel Macron to romp home.

Fillon goes on trial in Paris for scandal that changed French politics
Photo: JEAN-FRANÇOIS MONIER / AFP

On Monday, former prime minister Francois Fillon goes on trial in Paris on suspicion of misappropriating over a million euros in public funds, paid to his Welsh-born wife Penelope for a suspected fake job as a parliamentary assistant between 1998 and 2013.

The allegations that Penelope, who is also charged in the case, was paid up to 10,000 euros ($10,800) a month for little to no work buried Fillon's presidential ambitions and caused his centre-right Republicans party to implode.

With the career politician defiantly refusing to stand aside, even after being charged, many right-wing voters drifted to the centrist Macron.

Fillon, 65, denies fiddling the system and insists that Penelope — who faces charges including complicity in misuse of public funds — did real work for him in his rural constituency of Sarthe.

But investigators say they have found little documentary evidence of her efforts.

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 as an assistant, face up to 10 years in prison.

In a TV interview last month, Fillon ruled out any political comeback, saying his priority was to defend his family's honour.

'Rotten' politicians 

“Penelopegate” was all the more damaging for the French right given that Fillon had campaigned for president as a man of integrity, boasting of his scandal-free past over his former boss and rival Nicolas Sarkozy.

“There have been a lot of scandals in French political life, but in general they had to do with party financing,” political historian Jean Garrigues told AFP, citing as an example the 2011 corruption conviction of former president Jacques Chirac.

By contrast, the Fillon affair — like the tax fraud scandal that brought down Socialist budget minister Jerome Cahuzac in 2013 — deeply shocked the French because it allegedly exposed a grubbier instinct, that of using elected office for personal enrichment.

“This affair exacerbated the mistrust in political elites and strengthened the perception that 'they're all rotten',” Garrigues said.

French right in tatters 

For the Republicans party, which had been savouring the prospect of retaking the Elysee Palace after five years of Socialist rule, the scandal was nothing short of disastrous.

For the first time in France's postwar history the main right-wing party was eliminated during the first round of voting for president, and voters also deserted the Republicans in the follow-up parliamentary vote.

The losses deepened the divisions within the party between a moderate, liberal centre and a hard-right camp accused of chasing after the far right by hammering against immigration and Islam.

Meanwhile, attempts to clean up French politics that began in the wake of the Cahuzac affair continued. Hollande had already set up an independent agency in charge of vetting elected officials and senior public servants for possible conflict of interest and undeclared income.

Once elected, Macron also attempted to make his mark by prohibiting lawmakers and ministers from employing their family members and scrapping cash handouts for lawmakers to bestow on projects and NGOs of their choice.

“We can't say that lawmakers have remained indifferent to the various scandals,” Jean-Francois Kerleo, a law professor and scientific director of France's Observatory for Public Ethics, told AFP.

“There is a general demand for ethical behaviour and a realisation of the need for rules on how MPs use their office,” he said.

Distrust still runs deep

Yet despite the new faces and rules, distrust of political elites has continued to soar. In a January 2019 OpinionWay survey published at the height of the “yellow vest” anti-government revolt, 85 percent of voters said they did not believe politicians cared about their problems and only 9 percent trusted political parties.

“Emmanuel Macron's victory and the major political renewal of 2017 did nothing to change the distrust and in fact only reinforced it,” Garrigues said.

He linked the estrangement to the aloof style Macron was widely accused of adopting in his first year in office and to the fact that many of his centrist MPs come from a “wealthy, entrepreneurial” class that appears out of touch with ordinary people.

But Garrigues noted that the anti-elite sentiment also has an “irrational” quality.

“The truth is that transparency and integrity are a lot stronger today than in the past. But for some French people, those who are in power will never do enough,” he said.

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POLITICS

Revealed: France’s funniest politicians and their best ‘jokes’

Politicians' jokes are more usually met with a groan than a laugh, but France's annual prize for political humour has been awarded - here are the zingers judged the best in 2022.

Revealed: France's funniest politicians and their best 'jokes'

According to the jury on the Press club, Humour et Politique awards, the funniest politician in France is the Communist leader (and 2022 presidential candidate) Fabien Roussel.

His award-winning zinger is: “La station d’essence est le seul endroit en France où celui qui tient le pistolet est aussi celui qui se fait braquer.”

It translates as ‘the petrol station is the only place where the one holding the gun is also the one who is robbed’ – a joke that works much better in French where ‘pistolet’ means both a pistol and the petrol pump. 

On a side note for British readers – Roussel also looks quite a lot like left-wing UK comedian Stewart Lee, so maybe he has funny genes.

Second prize went to ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy with his withering assessment of Valérie Pécresse, the candidate for his old party in the 2022 presidential election, who did extremely badly.

“Ce n’est pas parce que tu achètes de la peinture, une toile et des pinceaux que tu deviens Picasso. Valérie Pécresse, elle a pris mes idées, mon programme et elle a fait 4.8 pourcent”

“It’s not because one buys paints, canvas and brushes that you become Picasso. Valérie Pécresse, she took my ideas, my manifesto and she got 4.8 percent of the vote.”

While these two were jokes – in the loosest sense of the word – the prize can also be awarded to politicians who make people laugh inadvertently, such as last year’s winner Marlène Schiappa who, when announcing plans to ban polygamy, felt the need to tell the French, “On ne va pas s’interdire les plans à trois” – we’re not going to outlaw threesomes.

Here’s the full list of finalists for the funniest political joke of 2022 – somehow we don’t think you’re at risk of split sides with any of these.

Ex-Prime minister Edouard Philippe talking about hard-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon: “Il faut une certaine audace pour que quelqu’un qui a été battu à une élection où il était candidat puisse penser qu’il sera élu à une élection où il n’est pas candidat!”

“It takes a certain audacity for someone who was defeated in an election where he was a candidate to think that he will be elected in an election where he is not a candidate!”

Ex-Assemblée nationale president Richard Ferrand: “Elisabeth Borne est formidable mais personne ne le sait.”

“Elisabeth Borne is great but no-one knows it.”

Ex-Macronist MP Thierry Solère: “Mon anatomie fait que si j’ai le cul entre deux chaises, je suis parfaitement assis.”

“My anatomy means that if I have my ass between two chairs, I am perfectly seated.”

Some information that might be useful for this one – the French phrase avoir le cul entre deux chaises (to have your ass between two chairs) is the equivalent of the English ‘falling between two stools’ – ie a person who cannot make up their mind what or who to support. Further information; Solère is a largish bloke.

Hard-left MP Eric Coquerel: “S’imaginer qu’on va remplacer Jean-Luc Mélenchon comme ça, c’est une vue de l’esprit. C’est comme se poser la question de qui va remplacer Jaurès.”

“To imagine that we will replace [party leader] Jean-Luc Mélenchon like that, is purely theoretical. It is like asking the question of who will replace Jaurès.”

Jean Jaurès is a revered figure on the French left, but not currently very active in politics, since he was assassinated in 1914.

Rachida Dati to Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo: “Votre présence au Conseil de Paris est aussi anecdotique que votre score à la présidentielle.”

“Your presence at the Council of Paris is as anecdotal as your score in the presidential election.”

There’s no doubt that Hidalgo did humiliatingly badly in the presidential election with a score of 1.75 percent. Daiti didn’t stand in the presidential elections but she did put herself forward to be mayor of Paris in 2020 and was convincingly beaten by . . . Anne Hidalgo.

So that’s the ‘jokes’, but there were also some entries for inadvertently funny moments.

Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo: “Tous les matins, je me lève en me disant que tout le monde m’aime.”

“Every morning, I wake up and tell myself that everyone loves me.”

But the undisputed queen of this genre is the green MP Sandrine Rousseau, whose ideas and policy announcements seem to have provoked a great deal of mirth.

Je voudrais qu’il y ait une possibilité de délit de non-partage des tâches domestiques – I would like there to be the possibility of a crime of not equally sharing domestic tasks

Les SDF meurent plus de chaleur l’été que l’hiver – The homeless die from heat more in the summer than the winter

Il faut changer aussi de mentalité pour que manger une entrecôte cuite sur un barbecue ne soit plus un symbole de virilité – We must also change our mentality so that eating a steak cooked on a barbecue is no longer a symbol of virility.

If you prefer your humour a little more scientific, Phd researcher Théo Delemazure has done a study of which politicians and political parties are funniest when speaking in parliament.

He analysed how often speeches raise a smile or a laugh (which presumably includes sarcastic laughter) and concluded that the party that gets the most laughs is the hard-left La France Insoumise.

They are also the party that speaks most often, however, when he calculated the laughter rate per time spent speaking, the prize went to the centre-right Les Républicains.

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