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French politics

Fallen former French premier François Fillon heads to trial for fraud

Penelope and François Fillon during the latter’s campaign in the 2017 French presidential election.
Penelope and François Fillon during the latter’s campaign in the 2017 French presidential election. Reuters/Pascal Rossignol/File photo

Former French Prime Minister François Fillon was due in a Paris court on Monday to face trial over claims that he embezzled more than a million euros in public funds by creating fake jobs family members, a scandal that ruined his bid for the French presidency in 2017. Judges delayed the opening of the trial until Wednesday.

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Fillon and his Welsh-born wife Penelope appeared in court briefly on Monday, only to hear judged granted their defence team’s request to postpone the proceedings until Wednesday, in solidarity with striking lawyers.

Investigators believe Fillon, 65, hired Welsh-born Penelope as his parliamentary assistant between 1998 and 2013 without her having done any actual work.

Fillon was polling as frontrunner in France’s 2017 presidential race after winning the primary of right-wing party Les Républicains when allegations of embezzlement began to surface in satirical and investigative newspaper Le Canard Enchainé.

Over several weeks, the paper detailed claims that Penelope received up to 10,000 euros per month for negligible work, and that Fillon also allegedly paid to two of his children as parliamentary assistants when he was a senator.

Fillon refused to step down as candidate and insisted Penelope, who is also charged in the case as an accomplice, worked in his parliamentary consistency in the rural Sarthe department.

But scant evidence emerged of what work Penelope actually did, and Fillon came in third in the first round of the election, behind centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

Fillon, who served as prime minister under former president Nicolas Sarkozy between 2007 and 2012, retired from a nearly four-decade career in French politics.

He now works for an asset management company and said last month he would not attempt a comeback in politics.

Little evidence of real work

Ahead of the trial, investigators said they had found little documentary evidence of what Penelope did as a taxpayer-funded parliamentary assistant.

They also seized on media interviews in 2007 and 2016 in which Penelope asserted she had never become involved in her husband’s political life.

The Fillons face up to 10 years in prison and potentially large fines. France’s National Assembly has joined the case as a civil party and could seek over a million euros in compensation.

In December 2018, Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière, a billionaire friend of Fillon’s, plead guilty to charges he paid Penelope 135,000 euros for a mostly fake job with a literary magazine.

Ladreit de Lacharrière plead guilty in December 2018 to paying He was handed an eight-month suspended sentence and ordered to pay 375,000 euros in fines.

The Fillons’ trial was scheduled to last until 11 March. The Fillon defence team requested the delayed opening out of solidarity with lawyers striking against Macron’s reform of the pension system.

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