Former French presidential hopeful François Fillon will stand trial for embezzlement in the aftermath of a “fake” jobs scandal that destroyed his political career.
Fillon, 65, who was on track to lead France in 2017, will appear in court with his Welsh-born wife, Penelope.
They will deny accusations of misusing more than €1m (£840,000) of state money to pay Mrs Fillon in an allegedly non-existent role as the presidential candidate’s parliamentary assistant.
The claims left Fillon’s political hopes and a public career spanning 35 years in tatters, changing the course of French politics.
In early 2017, Fillon, the centre-right former prime minister, was the clear favourite to win the race to lead France, when the satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchainé questioned payments made to his wife out of public funds.
After Fillon claimed she had worked as his assistant, the investigative programme Envoyé Special uncovered an interview Mrs Fillon, 64, gave to the Sunday Telegraph in 2007 in which asked if she worked with or for her husband, she had replied: “I have never actually been his assistant or anything like that”.
The accusations, which became known as “Penelopegate”, were especially damaging as Fillon had campaigned as the clean-hands candidate who had never been embroiled in any wrongdoing or political scandal.
Fillon, who served as prime minister under the centre-right president Nicolas Sarkozy, tried to outrun the scandal, refusing to abandon his campaign but was eliminated in the first round of the presidential election, leaving the mainstream right without a candidate in the second round for the first time in France’s post-war history.
Emmanuel Macron, a little known former economy minister and banker, stepped into the political vacuum, to face far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the second round run-off.
Fillon, now working for an investment bank, has kept a low profile until last month when he gave a pre-trial television interview. He insisted his wife had performed an essential working role in his constituency in Sarthe, in northwest France, for which she was reportedly paid an average of €3,000 per month and sometimes up to €5,200.
“From the beginning, we worked together … proof of this will be shown during the trial,” Fillon insisted.
He said the confusion had come about because the interview his wife had given in 2007 was in English and that she had been circumspect about her role.
“The word ‘assistant’ has another meaning in English than in French,” he said, adding his wife had always been “discreet” and “shy”.
Prosecutors have thrown doubt on his claims, reporting that investigations suggest Mrs Fillon may have dealt with her husband’s post and emails but was not his parliamentary assistant when she was paid a total of around €1m between 1998 and 2013.
A third suspect, Marc Jouland, 62, who took over the Sarthe constituency as a member of the Assemblée Nationale when Fillon became a cabinet minister and reportedly continued to employ Penelope Fillon as his “assistant”, will also stand trial on charges of embezzlement. He also denies the accusations.
Mrs Fillon, née Clarke, a solicitor’s daughter from Llanover near Abergavenny in Wales, is accused of complicity to misuse public funds. She is also under investigation for being paid for an allegedly “fake” job at a French language monthly literary, cultural and political affairs magazine, Revue des deux Mondes.
In last month’s interview, Fillon, whose disgrace left the mainstream right Les Républicains party in disarray, ruled out making a political comeback. He said he was speaking to defend his family’s honour. His wife, with whom he has five children, is a candidate at the nationwide municipal elections for her local council, scheduled to be held next month.
The trial opens on Monday in Paris and is expected to last until 11 March. Fillon faces up to 10 years in prison and a €1m fine if convicted of misusing public funds.