PARIS — François Fillon, a former French prime minister, was found guilty Monday of embezzling public funds and sentenced to prison time in a scandal involving a no-show job for his wife that crippled his front-runner status in the 2017 presidential race and led to a broader resentment of France’s political elite.
Fillon, 66, who was prime minister from 2007 to 2012, was accused mainly of paying his wife hundreds of thousands of euros from the public payroll for little or no work as his aide when he served as a representative in the lower house of the French Parliament.
The case against Fillon, who was widely seen as the favorite in the 2017 presidential race, threw the election into turmoil and opened a path to victory for President Emmanuel Macron, who at the time was a centrist outsider with little political experience.
Fillon was sentenced by a court in Paris to a five-year prison term, with three years suspended, and was ordered to pay a fine of 375,000 euros, or nearly $423,000. The court also barred him from holding public office for 10 years. Fillon’s wife, Penelope Fillon, 64, was found guilty of complicity and received a three-year suspended prison term and a fine of 375,000 euros.
Marc Joulaud, who replaced François Fillon as the representative for the rural Sarthe region of northwestern France from 2002 to 2005 — when Fillon had other roles in government — and who also hired Penelope Fillon as an aide, was found guilty and sentenced to a three-year suspended prison term and a fine of 20,000 euros (nearly $22,500).
The court also ordered the Fillons and Joulaud to reimburse more than 1 million euros (about $1,125,000) in total to the National Assembly, the lower house of the French Parliament, which joined the trial as a civil plaintiff and estimated that it had been defrauded of that amount.
The case against François Fillon tapped into broader resentment of France’s elite political class, its cozy financial arrangements and its reluctance to enact strict ethical standards. Hiring close family members as parliamentary aides was not illegal at the time — and Fillon was not the only one to do so — but the practice was banned later in 2017.
Nathalie Gavarino, the presiding judge in the case, said as she read the court’s ruling that Fillon had let his “personal interest” in enriching himself prevail over the “common good” and that he had eroded the trust that citizens have in the political system by hiring his wife for a job that had “no consistency” and that met “no need.”
François and Penelope Fillon, wearing face masks, left the courtroom without commenting. But lawyers for the couple said that they planned to appeal the verdict, meaning that the sentences and penalties will not go into effect immediately.
Antonin Lévy, a lawyer for François Fillon, told reporters outside the courtroom that the ruling was “unfair” and that a new trial was “all the more necessary” because the investigation and prosecution of Fillon had been carried out in “scandalous” conditions.
Fillon was also accused of paying his two eldest children for fictitious work as parliamentary aides when he was a senator and of helping his wife get a no-show job between 2012 and 2013 at a political magazine owned by a wealthy friend, where she did little beyond a handful of short literary reviews. Fillon and his wife were found guilty on most charges in both cases Monday.
Reports of Penelope Fillon’s no-show job first emerged in satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné in late January 2017, a few months before the first round of voting in the presidential election, and they were swiftly followed by an official investigation. The accusations were especially damaging for François Fillon, a stern fiscal and social conservative who ran on an image of probity and austerity, calling for economic sacrifices and vowing to slash thousands of civil service jobs.
Fillon angrily denied any wrongdoing after the accusations emerged, lashed out against the news media and pressed on as the candidate for the right-wing conservative Républicains party. He had been widely seen as the favorite in the race, ahead of Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate, and Macron, then a relatively untested outsider.
But his campaign was badly damaged, and Fillon failed to qualify for the second round of the elections, paving the way for Macron to defeat Le Pen. Fillon has since retired from politics and is working at an asset management company.
Fillon’s lawyers argued at the trial, held from late February to early March, that while there may have been few written traces of Penelope Fillon’s activities as a parliamentary aide, she had been her husband’s eyes and ears in his home constituency, meeting residents, opening mail, and writing reports on local issues. They also argued that the judicial branch had no right to interfere in the way François Fillon, as a member of the legislative branch, had hired his wife.
“This is an extremely harsh ruling that was handed down,” Pierre Cornut-Gentille, a lawyer for Penelope Fillon, told reporters outside the courtroom. “For us this is a breach of the separation of powers.”
Prosecutors countered that little of what Fillon did met the usual job description of a parliamentary aide — like working on legislation or drafting policy memos — and argued that François Fillon had paid his wife inflated salaries for a “fictitious” job, with little concrete evidence of actual work.
Fillon’s lawyers sought to reopen his trial last week after Éliane Houlette, formerly France’s top financial prosecutor, told lawmakers that she had been put under intense “pressure” by her superiors while she was handling the case.
Houlette told the lawmakers during a hearing this month that supervision of the case was heavy-handed, with incessant requests for updates on the proceedings and pressure to upgrade the status of the investigation to a more formal one. Houlette later said that the “pressure” was “purely of a procedural order” and had no bearing on the merits of the case against Fillon. She denied that the executive branch, then led by President François Hollande, a Socialist, had interfered in her work.
But some of Fillon’s allies, who remained bitterly convinced that the case against him was politically motivated, have jumped on Houlette’s statements as proof that their candidate was unfairly knocked out of the race.
“What is most shocking in this affair is what happened for the French,” Valérie Boyer, a right-wing lawmaker and staunch ally of Fillon’s, told news channel LCI on Monday, adding that Fillon had been unfairly “persecuted” because of his political leaning. “The presidential debate was stolen,” she said.
Macron has ordered a top judicial oversight body to review the actions of the financial prosecutor’s office during the investigation, to see if it was able to act “without pressure” and “to erase all doubt about the independence and impartially of the justice system in this case.”