PARIS – He was the front-runner to be president of France. Instead, former Prime Minister Francois Fillon is going on trial to face fraud charges after he used public funds to pay his wife and children for work they allegedly never performed.
The trial formally began Monday in the presence of Fillon and his wife. But it was quickly suspended until Wednesday following a request from all lawyers who wished to display their solidarity with colleagues striking over President Emmanuel Macron’s controversial pension reform.
Fillon's lawyer, Antonin Levy, said the request was “symbolic” to show anger at the changes, which would make lawyers pay more tax. The bill is currently being debated at parliament.
The trial is scheduled to last until March 11.
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. Altogether, the aide work brought the family more than 1 million euros ($1.08 million).
Once the front-runner in the 2017 presidential election, Fillon, 65, has 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.
Fillon has been 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 ten years in prison and a 1 million euro 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 135.000 euros 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, pled guilty and was given a suspended eight-month prison sentence and fined 375,000 euros 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.
Defense lawyers provided about 500 documents they say 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. Its lawyer, Yves Claisse, said “if the tribunal decide that there were infractions, the National Assembly will ask for a total penalty of 1.081 million euros that correspond to the salaries and payroll charges that were paid.”
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 has always kept a low profile. In a 2007 interview with British newspaper The Sunday Telegraph she presented herself as a housewife devoted to raising their five children.
She told investigators that her main role was to handle her husband’s mail at their manor house near a small town in rural western France, Sable-sur-Sarthe, where Fillon was first elected to Parliament in 1981 at the age of 27.
Fillon served as prime minister under president Nicolas Sarkozy from 2007 to 2012. He was also a government official under two previous presidents, Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac.
The case came amid a series of scandals that prompted Macron’s government to pass a law meant to clean up ethics in politics. One measure bans lawmakers and government members from hiring close family members.
Fillon now works for an asset management company. He said last month that he won’t attempt a political comeback.