Former French PM and wife go on trial for fraud

PARIS (AP) — He could have been president of France. Instead, former Prime Minister Francois Fillon is going on trial to face fraud charges after he used public funds to richly pay his wife and children for work they allegedly never performed.

The trial began yesterday and is scheduled to last until March 11, but it was quickly suspended until tomorrow on request from Fillon’s defence team out of solidarity with a lawyers’ strike against French President Emmanuel Macron’s controversial pension reform.

Fillon is suspected of having given jobs as parliamentary aides, involving no sustained work, to his wife and two of their children from 1998 to 2013. The aide work brought the family more than USD1.08 million.

Once the front-runner in the 2017 presidential election, Fillon, 65, denied wrongdoing.

The scandal, which made headline in the French media just three months before the 2017 vote, crushed the conservative candidate’s campaign and allowed centrist candidate Macron to gain momentum.

France’s former Prime Minister Francois Fillon and his wife Penelope leave the Paris courthouse, in Paris, yesterday. PHOTO: AP

Fillon was charged with the misuse of public funds, receiving money from the misuse of public funds and the misappropriation of company assets. He faces up to 10 years in prison and a EUR one million fine.

His wife Penelope Fillon has been charged mostly as an accomplice.

A former lawmaker Marc Joulaud also goes on trial for misuse of public funds after he allegedly gave her a fake job as an aide from 2002 to 2007, while her husband was minister.

Fillon and Joulaud both had other parliamentary assistants.

In addition, charges also cover a contract that allowed Penelope Fillon to earn EUR 135.000 in 2012-2013 as a consultant for a literary magazine owned by a friend of her husband — also an alleged fake job. The magazine owner Marc de Lacharriere pleaded guilty and was given a suspended eight-month prison sentence and fined EUR375,000 in 2018.

Fillon said last month on France 2 television that his wife’s job was not fake. “She was my first and most important aide,” he said. “Evidence will be produced during the trial.”

In a 151-page document seen by The Associated Press ordering the case to trial, investigative judges said the probe showed that Penelope Fillon’s activities were in line with the traditional role of an elected official’s partner — but in no way equivalent to the tasks of a parliamentary assistant.

Defence lawyers provided about 500 documents they said are related to Penelope Fillon’s work.

“These documents did not show anything, or only confirmed a misleading interpretation consisting in calling parliamentary work the most trivial of her activities,” investigative judges wrote.

The investigation also showed that the wages of the children’s alleged jobs, well-paid and declared as full-time aides, were paid to the joint banking account of Francois and Penelope Fillon.

The Lower House of Parliament, the National Assembly, joined the proceedings as a civil plaintiff to request reimbursement.

Fillon denounced the case as a “political assassination” after it was revealed in January 2017, when French investigative newspaper Le Canard Enchaine first reported Penelope Fillon’s alleged fake job.

He continued his presidential campaign despite the judicial investigation, but his image as an earnest and honest politician with a strong focus on family values, was seriously damaged. Fillon was eliminated from the race after finishing third in the first round, behind Macron and far-right leader Marine le Pen.

Welsh-born Penelope Fillon always kept a low profile.