PARIS — In a country that adores a good political scandal, the “Penelope Affair” is already a blockbuster hit.
This latest episode in the constant kerfuffle of French politics stars Penelope — known as “Penny” — Fillon, the august, British-born wife of François Fillon, the conservative front-runner in France’s upcoming presidential elections. A French newspaper reported Wednesday that Penelope Fillon had received more than $530,000 in public funds over the past decade for an assortment of parliamentary jobs she never did.
Given that François Fillon, a hard-line former prime minister, is running on the controversial pledge to slash as many as 500,000 public service jobs and what he says is unnecessary public spending, the Penelope Affair presents a particularly acute embarrassment. Especially for a family man who has been selling himself to voters as the honest, moral choice.
By Thursday night, Fillon — whom a number of polls have projected to win the election — was on national television, playing defense and insisting that nothing illegal had transpired. By Friday, he had announced that he would drop out of the race if he were formally placed under criminal investigation.
“Only one thing would prevent me from being a candidate — if my honor were harmed, if I were placed under formal investigation,” Fillon said.
Financial prosecutors have launched a preliminary investigation, but only a judge can decide whether the prosecutors have an actual case. For now, Fillon is still in the race.
But the details have already begun to affect his campaign, and his political opponents, especially on the left, have seized on them.
According to Le Canard Enchaine, a satirical and investigative newspaper, Penelope Fillon received the bulk of the $530,000 from work she conducted as an assistant to her husband during his time in Parliament — proofreading his speeches and entertaining guests, work that Fillon has subsequently described as “legal and perfectly transparent.”
This is not necessarily false: Nepotism is not illegal in the French Parliament, and, according to estimates in the French media, approximately 10 percent of deputies employ family members in at least some capacity. As Fillon said after the revelations appeared: “My wife has been working for me forever, ever since I first got elected in 1981.”
But the newspaper exposé quoted a former aide of Fillon’s who said that he never actually saw Penelope Fillon do any of the things for which she was ostensibly paid. If in fact she received public funds for services that were never performed, that could be grounds for legal sanctioning.
The optics worsened with the additional revelation that Penelope Fillon had also been paid nearly $5,400 per month for over a year by the owner of the Revue des Deux Mondes, a literary review owned by an industrialist friend of François Fillon’s. Le Canard Enchaine suggested that she had done little for the publication besides cashing the monthly checks.
France’s presidential election is a contest that many analysts are now calling a race that will determine the immediate future of Europe in the wake of the Brexit vote and the surprise election of President Trump. Fillon dropping out would lend even more uncertainty to a race without a traditionally strong leftist representative but with an increasingly popular National Front, France’s populist far-right party.
The two-round election will take place in late April and early May.