PARIS: A Paris court on Monday found French former prime minister Francois Fillon guilty of having used public funds to pay his wife and children for work they never performed.
The work had brought the family more than €1 million ($1.13 million) since 1998. The couple’s lawyers immediately announced an appeal.
Fillon, 66, was sentenced to five years in prison, three of which were suspended, and a €375,000 ($423,100) fine. He is also banned from seeking elected office for 10 years. He remains free pending appeal.
His wife, Penelope Fillon, 64, was found guilty as an accomplice. She was given a three-year suspended sentence and fined the same amount.
The scandal broke in the French media just three months before the country’s 2017 presidential election, as Fillon was the front-runner in the race. It cost him his reputation. Fillon sank to third place in the election, which was won by Emmanuel Macron.
Fillon, who was France’s prime minister from 2007 to 2012, and his wife have denied any wrongdoing and can appeal the decision.
Penelope Fillon’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.
Prosecutors denounced “fraudulent, systematic practices.”
Fillon was accused of misuse of public funds, receiving money from the misuse of public funds and the misappropriation of company assets. His wife was charged mostly as an accomplice.
During the trial, Penelope Fillon explained how she decided to support her husband’s career when he was first elected as a French lawmaker 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. She said working that way allowed her to have a flexible schedule and 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 Fillon “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 Fillon insisted his wife’s job was real and said that, according to the separation of powers, the justice system can’t interfere with how a lawmaker organizes work at his office.
In addition, charges also cover a contract that allowed Penelope Fillon to earn €135,000 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 in 2018.
The National Assembly, which joined the proceedings as a civil plaintiff, has requested a total penalty of 1.081 million euros that correspond to the salaries and payroll charges that were paid.
Fillon, once the youngest lawmaker 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.
He left French politics in 2017 and now works for an asset management company.