Former French presidential hopeful François Fillon in court in bid to clear his name
Former French presidential hopeful François Fillon returns to court on Monday to try to clear his name in a corruption case known as "Penelopegate" -- one of the biggest political scandals in France in decades. The collapse of his presidential bid left the Republicans party in disarray and sealed the rise of Emmanuel Macron.
After five years of turbulent Socialist rule under Francois Hollande the conservative former prime minister was hotly tipped to win back the Elysee Palace for the right in 2017.
But three months before the vote, Fillon's campaign was torpedoed by revelations that his wife Penelope received 613,000 euros ($700,000) over a period of 15 years for a suspected fake job as a parliamentary assistant to her husband and his deputy.
Fillon, who had campaigned as a model of integrity, crashed out of the election in the first round after being charged with embezzling public funds.
In June 2020, a court ruled that Penelope's job was either "fictitious or greatly overstated" and gave François Fillon, 67, a two-year jail term for fraud and barred him from holding elected office for 10 years.
His Welsh-born wife, 66, received a suspended sentence.
The couple and Fillon's former deputy, Marc Joulaud, were also ordered to repay the lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, more than a million euros.
Fillon was allowed to go free pending the outcome of the couple's appeal, which gets under way on Monday.
His latest court appearance comes in a year in which his former boss, ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, was given two prison sentences in two separate trials, one for corruption and the other for illegal campaign financing.
Sarkozy, who was France's first postwar president to be sentenced to jail, has appealed against both rulings.
Fillon has admitted to having "certainly made mistakes" but denies trying to cheat taxpayers by using funds available to MPs towards parliamentary assistants to enrich his family.
He insists that Penelope did real work for her salary, including organising his mail and proofreading his speeches.
A devout Catholic, he had seen off a comeback attempt by Sarkozy to win the Republican nomination in 2016 after campaigning as a "Mr Clean".
The collapse of his 2017 presidential bid left his party in disarray.
With no champion of their own left in the race most conservatives shifted their support to the centrist upstart Macron, who poached several senior Republicans on his march to power.
Fillon's appeal, which takes the form of a full retrial, comes as the country begins preparing for new elections in April.
Two of the five candidates vying for the Republicans nomination have pledged to make deep cuts in the number of civil servants if elected -- echoing one of Fillon's key promises.
'Second division nation'
"If he (Fillon) had been elected, I think that France would not be in the process of being relegated to the second division among nations," one of the contenders, MP Eric Ciotti, declared during a TV debate last week.
Over several weeks the investigative newspaper Canard Enchaine drip fed allegations.
Apart from Penelope's suspected fake parliamentary job, the Fillons were also hit by claims of fake jobs in the Senate for two of their five children as well as a fake job for Penelope at a magazine owned by a friend of Fillon's.
Last week, it also emerged that Francois Fillon was also under investigation for using public funds to pay his speechwriter to help him write a book.
Fillon's lawyer Antonin Levy has accused anti-fraud prosecutors of hounding his client.
Fillon, who has quit politics, has set up a business consultancy. He is also on the board of Russian state oil company Zarubezhneft.
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