NewsHubFrance’s centre-right presidential candidate is fighting for his political life, weeks before voters decide who will run their country.
Francois Fillon’s Welsh-born wife, Penelope, has become caught up in a controversy surrounding a parliamentary assistant job for which she was paid hundreds of thousands of euros.
Nothing, says Francois Fillon, who insists everything was above board. But the clouds are gathering around the couple and the question is: did she do the work she was paid for? Satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine says she did not — and got €831,400 (£710,000; $900,000) for her trouble.
She was employed as her husband’s parliamentary assistant from 1988-90 and again in 1998-2002 and then by his successor, Marc Jouland, from 2002-2007. She worked again for Mr Fillon from 2012-13. That is all very well if she actually did the work, but one report suggests she did not have a parliamentary pass or a work email.
Police have begun a preliminary inquiry.
According to Le Canard , she also pocketed €100,000 for writing just a handful of articles for a literary review La Revue des Deux Mondes, owned by a billionaire friend of the family, Marc Ladreit de Lacharriere.
And then there are the children too. Marie and Charles Fillon were paid by their father’s office for legal work, but were not yet qualified lawyers, says the weekly. Investigators are also looking into this.
The general rule of thumb is the longer a political scandal stays on the front pages, the more likely a resignation becomes. And this began on 25 January and is not going away.
Mr Fillon was previously favourite to win the presidential race, but his support is ebbing away among voters and within his own party. One opinion poll said 76% of voters were unimpressed with his claims of innocence, casting doubt over whether he would reach the second-round run-off.
Mr Fillon, 62, says he will not resign unless he is placed under formal investigation. And he has asked his colleagues to wait a fortnight for a decision.
But Republican MP Georges Fenech has said Mr Fillon’s victory in party primaries in November is «obsolete», and colleague Henri Guaino believes his position is untenable. It really is not looking good and «Penelope-gate» could bring him down.
The candidate’s rivals are scenting blood, and yet he still has high-profile support. Seventeen centre-right heavyweights have signed a letter deploring the campaign against him and offering total support. They include three rivals defeated by him in the primaries.
The runner-up in that vote, Alain Juppe, has insisted he isn’t a «Plan B» — but his supporters may have other ideas.
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So far Francois Fillon has complained of an «institutional coup d’etat» orchestrated by the left. There may well be a campaign to target him.
But a fraud inquiry is under way, so he will need more than rhetoric to help him. He and his wife have been interviewed and his children are now under scrutiny too.
Asked by French TV about the work that his wife had done, he said: «She corrected my speeches, she received countless guests, she represented me in protests, she passed on people’s requests… she did it willingly for years. »
Family lawyer Antonin Levy insists that Penelope Fillon has explained that her absence from any workplace was because her husband had no constituency office. «That role was filled from their home, and in your view who is at home… if there is no office? Penelope Fillon of course,» he said.
Well, yes he does. It is really not unusual for French MPs to employ a member of their own family. French website Mediapart worked out that 115 out of 577 MPs did just that, either on a full or part-time basis.
And in France there is nothing illegal about it, assuming they actually do the work.
What might prove awkward is that few people have any recollection of Mrs Fillon doing any work. Michel Crepu, an ex-editor of the literary review that apparently paid her €100,000, told Le Canard Enchaine that she published two or three literary reviews but he had never met her and «never seen her in the office».
Then there are Penelope Fillon’s own words. French TV says it obtained a video from a 2007 Sunday Telegraph interview in which she says: «I’ve never been his assistant or anything of that kind… I didn’t handle his PR either. » The video is no longer available online and Mr Fillon’s lawyer dismissed the video as old rushes that were out of context.
That is tricky, because there is no Plan B.
Does that mean they would have to re-run the centre-right primary, in which four million French voters took part? That seems highly unlikely.
According to the lawyer in charge of the primary, Anne Levade, there is no provision for anyone pulling out. But if it did happen the interested parties would have to make a decision.
Supporters of Bordeaux Mayor Alain Juppe, 71, are known to be urging him to consider a return to the race if Francois Fillon does pull out.
Francois Fillon’s main rivals in the presidential race are the clear winners so far, because opinion polls now suggest that the man who was favourite to win will now fail to reach the second round run-off in May.
Far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen is expected to win the first round of the presidential vote in April, although she is still on course for defeat in the May run-off, opinion polls suggest.
So it is Emmanuel Macron, the centrist, young ex-economy minister, who has come from nowhere and is fast emerging as the person with most to gain.

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