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French ex-PM Francois Fillon and British wife handed prison sentences over fake jobs fraud

Former French premier François Fillon and his British-born wife Penelope were found guilty by a Paris court Monday on charges he orchestrated a fake job as parliamentary assistant for her.

French ex-PM Francois Fillon and British wife handed prison sentences over fake jobs fraud
Former French Prime minister Francois Fillon and his wife Penelope Fillon arrive at the Paris' courthouse on June 29th, 2020 for the ruling on a trial for embezzlement in the context of an alleged job
François Fillon was sentenced to five years in prison, three of which were suspended, meaning he will spend two years behind bars.
 
He was also handed a €375,000 fine and banned from public office for 10 years.
 
His wife, Penelope Fillon, 64, was handed a three-year suspended sentence and the same fine. Her lawyer described the punishment as “extremely severe”.
 
The verdict was a long-awaited end to a political scandal that began when François Fillon, 66, was accused of creating a post that paid his wife over one million euros in public funds, a scandal that torpedoed his 2017 presidential bid.
 
 
The then-leader of the conservative party Les Républicains was widely tipped to win the presidency when the French Canard Enchaine newspaper reported that Penelope Fillon had been his parliamentary assistant for 15 years – except there was no evidence that she did any work.
 
In its verdict the court concluded that the payment Penelope Fillon had received “was not in proportion with her activities.”

“Her role was limited to simple transmission”, said the president of the court.

'Perfectly justified'

To defend herself from the accusations against her, Penelope Fillon told the court she had spent a lot of time sorting her husband's mail, attending public events near their rural manor and gathering information for his speeches.
 
But investigators seized on a 2016 newspaper interview in which she said: “Until now, I have never got involved in my husband's political life.”

At the height of the scandal in January 2017, François Fillon had told the media his wife's salary was “perfectly justified for the indispensable work she did for him.”

After the verdict his lawyer said the court's decision was “unjust” and announced his intention to appeal.

“There will be a new trial, which is necessary given the ludicrous conditions in which the investigation took place and the surprising conditions in which the investigation was carried out,” said Fillon's lawyer Antonin Lévy.

 

'Penelopegate' 

“Penelopegate”, as the case was known, is one of a number of fraud cases against senior politicians opened in recent months and seen by some as a test of whether the French elite can be held accountable.

The revelations dealt a body blow to François Fillon's carefully honed image as a stern budgetary steward, despite his insistence that his wife had earned the €1.05 million she was paid from 1998 to 2013.
 
It later emerged Fillon had also used public money to pay two of his children a combined 117,000 euros for alleged sham work while he was a senator, before becoming premier in the government of then-president Nicolas Sarkozy.
 
The allegations that François Fillon had pilfered the public coffers for years pummelled his image as an upright fiscal hawk promising to right the country's finances – and loomed large in the “yellow vest” anti-government protests that rocked the country in 2018-2019.
 
François Fillon has repeatedly insisted that he was set up for “political assassination” by his rivals and was also the victim of a biased judiciary.
 
François Fillon’s lawyer said they would appeal the court's decision.
 
A third defendant, Marc Joulaud – who stood in for Fillon in parliament when he was a cabinet minister, and who also hired Penelope Fillon as an assistant – was also found guilty and handed a three year suspended sentence.

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JOHN LICHFIELD

OPINION: France has two presidents – one is confident, the other weak and directionless

France has two Emmanuel Macrons: one is strangely depressed and directionless, the other confident and clear, writes John Lichfield. But which one will emerge in his second term as president?

OPINION: France has two presidents - one is confident, the other weak and directionless

There is a global Emmanuel Macron, confident and clear; and then there is a domestic Emmanuel Macron, who sometimes appears petulant and indecisive.

Global Macron is admired by many people outside France for his eloquence and his intelligence. He is also mocked and feared by some people abroad (especially in the Brexit camp in Britain) for his alleged pretentiousness and arrogance (in other words for his eloquence and intelligence).

For Global Macron, it has been a good couple of weeks. 

His speech to the United Nations General Assembly this week was the best given by any world leader.

He placed the Ukraine war in a sweeping, global and historical context, lambasting allegedly “neutral” countries for failing to stand up for the core UN principles of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The “fake” non-aligned countries were, he said, betraying not just the values of the UN but their own interests.

Macron has also been word perfect in his tributes to the Queen.

He obtained little credit for that fact from the hardest-line,  professional Macron-haters in the UK media. They preferred to concentrate on the fact that he wore posh trainers during an informal visit last weekend to the enormous queues of people waiting to file past Her Majesty’s coffin in Westminster.

King Charles has, however, seized on this opportunity to improve relations between France and Britain which Liz Truss had ignored. After a dinner with Macron in London last Sunday, the new king is reliably reported to have decided that his first state visit next year should be to France.

So much for the global Macron.

The other Macron, the domestic president, is newly re-elected but strangely weak and directionless.

His popularity in opinion polls is fading. He seems unable to come to terms with his loss of his parliamentary majority in the legislative elections in June. He has yet to give a clear road-map for his second term to his newly renamed Renaissance party and their centrist allies.

(REMEMBER: You can listen to John Lichfield discuss the crisis on the French left and the mixed fortunes of Emmanuel Macron in the latest episode of our Talking France podcast below)

He has alternated in recent weeks between Blood, Sweat and Tears warnings to the French people that they face a cold and difficult winter and a generous (but reluctant) decision to extend domestic energy subsidies for another full year.

He has alarmed some of his own allies by raising the possibility that he might use his emergency constitutional powers to push pension reform through a divided National Assembly.

At the same time, he has pressed ahead with his vague plan for a grandiloquently-named Conseil national de la Refondation (National refoundation council). This body is supposed to find common ground between Left and Right, unions and bosses, to “refound” the French welfare state created just after the 1939-45 war.

On the one hand,  Macron says that he wants to find a new social consensus for the 21st century. On the other hand, he says that he wants to charge, without negotiation, into the social and political minefield of pension reform.

In a briefing with journalists earlier this month, the President suggested that he could avoid a lengthy negotiation with unions and the parliament to increase the standard French retirement age (now in theory 62). Changes in system could be tacked onto the annual social security budget next month and then pushed through the Assembly, in effect, by decree.

This week, the government back-pedalled. No decision has yet been taken, they say. One of Macron’s principal allies, the veteran centrist leader, François Bayrou, warned that any attempt to impose such a transformation on French lives by force would be a calamity.

How can we explain the two Macrons?

Partly, they reflect the constitutional powers given to French presidents. On international affairs and European affair, Macron can go largely his own way. On domestic policy, if he has no majority in parliament, his powers are limited.

I believe, however, that the problem runs deeper. There have been reports for months that Macron suffered after his re-election in April from a “drop in energy” or a period of depression.

The second half of his first term had been brutally occupied with non-stop management of the Covid and Ukraine crises. His attempts at mediating with Vladimir Putin had been a discouraging failure.

After his victory over Marine Le Pen, Macron drifted for weeks, delaying his decisions on a new Prime Minister and a new government. He was strangely absent from the parliamentary campaign in June (well below the limits imposed by his position as head of state).

Macron’s distraction contributed to his failure to win a new parliamentary majority; his lack of a majority has, I believe, compounded his mood of indecision and depression.

What to do with five years of a second term? Should he accept that his only role is now crisis-management? After all there are crises enough to manage.

Is the career of the self-proclaimed revolutionary of 2017 finished at the age of 44?  He cannot run again in 2027. He faces the prospect of five years of managerialism and drift while attention switches to his possible successors, from Edouard Philippe in the centre to Marine Le Pen on the Far Right.

“Macron is a magician who has lost his wand,” says one pro-Macron parliamentarian. “He’s still searching  for a way forward, a sense of direction. In short, he has the blues.”

By comparison with French politics, international crises are simple. Macron has clear ideas about the place of France and Europe in the world. He can express himself, both off the cuff and in set-piece speeches, with elegance and intelligence.

Macron has had no other position in elected politics than President of the Republic. He has no background as local or parliamentary politician. The prospect of five years of grinding negotiation to achieve quarter-baked reforms is, I believe, appalling to him.

Hence, his domestic zig-zagging.

He faces three choices in the next few months. He can accept a role as a manager of crises and minimal reforms; he can risk a Yellow Vest-type revolt by using, maybe abusing, his limited constitutional powers to impose change.

Or he can hope for an opportunity in the first half of next year to call a new parliamentary election.

Which way will he go? I don’t know. Nor, I suspect, does Emmanuel Macron.

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