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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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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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