Former French presidential frontrunner François Fillon went on trial on Monday to face fraud charges – accused of using public funds to pay his wife and children for work they allegedly did not do.
Proceedings got underway in the presence of the couple. But they were quickly suspended until Wednesday after a request from lawyers who wished to show solidarity with colleagues on strike over pension reforms.
The ex-prime minister was favourite to win the race for the Elysée Palace in 2017 as candidate for the main centre-right party. But his campaign was seriously damaged when the scandal broke before the election, and he failed to make it to the run-off.
Fillon is suspected of having given jobs as parliamentary aides to his wife and two children between 1998 and 2013, even though they are said to have done no substantive work.
His wife, Penelope, is mostly charged as an accomplice. Fillon’s former parliamentary aide Marc Joulard is also a co-defendant in the case.
The Fillon family denies charges of misusing more than a million euros of state funds. Last month the former candidate told French television that his wife’s job was not fake, and that evidence would be produced to show that “she was my first and most important aide”.
But in early 2017 the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné reported that Penelope Fillon had been paid hundreds of thousands of euros for her role as parliamentary assistant, yet had done little work.
The investigative programme “Envoyé Special” unearthed a 10-year old interview she gave to a British newspaper in which, asked about her work for her husband, she replied: “I’ve never actually been his assistant or anything like that”.
Penelope Fillon grew up in Britain and the interview was conducted in English. Her husband has claimed that different interpretations of the word “assistant” have caused confusion.
Defence lawyers have provided some 500 documents they say are related to Penelope Fillon’s work. The Associated Press has seen documents in which investigative judges claim her activities were in line with the traditional role of an elected official’s partner – but did not amount to the tasks of a parliamentary aide.
The investigation is also said to show that salaries from the children’s alleged jobs were paid to their parents’ joint bank account.
François Fillon denounced the case as a “political assassination” when it was exposed in early 2017. He tried to carry on in the race for the French presidency, but was knocked out in the first round of the election – which saw Emmanuel Macron triumph after beating Marine Le Pen in the run-off.
Fillon – who was prime minister during Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency – is charged with the misuse of public funds, receiving money from the misuse of public funds and the misappropriation of company assets.