Under pressure for hiring his wife, France’s Francois Fillon accuses media of ‘mud-slinging’
French presidential front runner Francois Fillon criticised a campaign of “mud-slinging” on Wednesday as he came under pressure over allegations he employed his wife as a parliamentary aide for more than a decade.
The Canard Enchaine newspaper, which mixes satire and serious investigative reporting, alleged Tuesday that British-born Penelope Fillon had been paid from money available to her husband as a longstanding MP for the northern Sarthe region.
The newspaper alleged that she had earned around €500,000 over three periods, but said its reporters had not been able to find witnesses to her work.
“I see that the mud-slinging season has started,” Fillon told reporters during a campaign event in Bordeaux. “I won’t comment because there is nothing to comment on and I would like to say that I am outraged by the disdain and misogyny in this article.”
Fillon’s spokesman Thierry Solere confirmed to AFP on Tuesday that Penelope had worked for her husband, an arrangement he said was “common” among French MPs.
Hiring family members is not against the rules as long as the person is genuinely employed, but attention is focused on what work Penelope carried out for a salary of sometimes around €7,000 a month. Penelope has taken a low-profile in Fillon’s nearly four-decade political career, focusing on bringing up the couple’s five children at their chateau in the Sarthe region.
The 62-year-old candidate, who served as prime minister under former president Nicolas Sarkozy, has run a campaign promising radical economic reforms and the protection of French culture.
“It’s up to him to explain himself,” Socialist party presidential candidate Manuel Valls told France Inter radio on Wednesday. “You can’t say you’re the candidate of honesty and transparency and not be able to respond to these issues.” Other opponents highlighted how Fillon frequently rails against the bloated French state and wasteful public spending, which he plans to tackle by cutting 500,000 civil servants if elected.
The election in April and May is seen as highly unpredictable, with Fillon, the far-right leader Marine Le Pen, 39-year-old centrist independent Emmanuel Macron and others in a large field of candidates.
Le Pen, whose party is embroiled in its own scandal about the use of public funds in the European parliament, declined to attack Fillon over the issue when asked on Europe 1 radio on Wednesday morning. The Socialist party is set to finalise its presidential candidate this Sunday, with former PM Valls up against leftist ex-education minister Benoit Hamon, who is seen as the front runner.
The two will go head-to-head in a televised debate later on Wednesday during which probity in public life might be a subject in light of the Fillon revelations.
Citing pay slips, the Canard Enchaine said Penelope, nicknamed “Penny”, was paid from 1998 to 2002 from funds intended for parliamentary assistants. From 2002 to 2007, when Fillon took up a cabinet post under then president Jacques Chirac, she became an assistant to the man who carried out Fillon’s parliamentary duties in his place, earning €6,900-€7,900 per month.
The paper said Penelope was again paid “for at least six months” in 2012 when Fillon, then prime minister, left government after the defeat of Sarkozy in elections.
The paper also says that Penelope Fillon was paid around €5,000 a month between May 2012 and December 2013 by a periodical, Revue des Deux Mondes, which is owned by a friend of Fillon.
Fillon told a television interviewer in November that Penelope had brought up their first four children while he was in Paris as an MP, but she had helped him with some of his political duties.
“She was very involved in the campaigns, handing out flyers and attending meetings with me,” he said. But Penelope also told Britain’s Sunday Telegraph after her husband became prime minister in 2007 that she was uneasy in Paris and preferred looking after her children and horses in the countryside. “I’m just a country peasant, this is not my natural habitat,” she joked.