France sentences ex-PM Fillon, his wife to prison in fraud trial

Fillon used a total of $1m in public funds to pay his wife and children for work they never performed, a court says.

    Fillon served as prime minister under President Nicolas Sarkozy from 2007 to 2012 [Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters]
    Fillon served as prime minister under President Nicolas Sarkozy from 2007 to 2012 [Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters]

    A Paris court has sentenced former French Prime Minister Francois Fillon to five years in prison, with three suspended, for having used public funds to pay his wife and children for work they never performed.

    His wife, Penelope Fillon, was handed a three-year suspended sentence on Monday for being an accomplice in the fraud that brought the family more than one million euros ($1.13m) since 1998.

    The court also fined each of them 375,000 euros ($423,100) and barred Francois from standing in any election for the next 10 years.

    The couple said they would appeal the verdict.

    The scandal broke in the French media just three months before the country's 2017 presidential election, as Fillon was the frontrunner in the race. It cost him his reputation. Fillon sank to third place in the election, which was won by now President Emmanuel Macron. 

    Penelope's role alongside her husband drew all the attention during the February-March trial, which focused on determining whether her activities were in the traditional role of an elected official's partner - or involved actual paid work.

    FILE PHOTO - Francois Fillon, former French prime minister, member of The Republicans political party and 2017 presidential candidate of the French centre-right, and his wife Penelope Fillon stand clo
    Fillon sank to third place in the 2017 election after the scandal broke [File: Pascal Rossignol/Reuters]

    During the trial, Penelope explained how she decided to support her husband's career when he was first elected as a French legislator in 1981 in the small town of Sable-sur-Sarthe, in rural western France. 

    Over the years, she was offered different types of contracts as a parliamentary assistant, depending on her husband's political career.

    She described her work as mostly doing reports about local issues, opening the mail, meeting with residents and helping to prepare speeches for local events.

    France ex-PM Fillon awaits verdict over corruption case (02:28)

    She said working that way allowed her to have a flexible schedule and to raise their five children in the Fillons' countryside manor. She said her husband was the one who decided the details of her contracts.

    Prosecutors pointed at the lack of actual evidence of her work, including the absence of declarations for any paid vacations or maternity leave, as her wages reached up to nine times France's minimum salary.

    Prosecutor Aurelien Letocart argued that "meeting with voters, getting the children from school, going shopping or reading mail isn't intended to be paid work".

    Letocart said Francois "had a deep feeling of impunity, the certainty that his status would dissuade anyone from suing him ... This gets cynical when that attitude comes from a man who made probity his trademark".

    Francois insisted his wife's job was real and said, according to the separation of powers, the justice system cannot interfere with how a legislator organises work at his office. 

    Magazine consultant

    In addition, charges also cover a contract that allowed Penelope to earn 135,000 euros ($152,316) 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, already pleaded guilty and was given a suspended eight-month prison sentence and fined 375,000 euros ($423,100) in 2018.

    The National Assembly, which joined the proceedings as a civil plaintiff, has requested a total penalty of 1.08 million euros ($1.13m) that correspond to the salaries and payroll charges that were paid.

    Francois, once the youngest legislator at the National Assembly at the age of 27, served as prime minister under President Nicolas Sarkozy from 2007 to 2012.

    He was also a minister under two previous presidents, Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac.

    Francois left French politics in 2017 and now works for an asset management company. 

    SOURCE: News agencies