The silence of would-be First Lady of France Penelope Fillon is arguably the most disturbing aspect of the sleaze scandal engulfing her adopted country. It is now more than a week since allegations of sustained criminality were being investigated, but she has not uttered a single public word in that time. What a contrast to her alpha male husband, François Fillon, who has been on a furiously loud offensive around Paris, desperately trying to salvage his career.
At the time of writing, Fillon is still convinced he can become the French President in May, standing on a platform of fiscal rigour, absolute probity in public life and the slashing of some 500,000 civil servant posts. This despite the fact the couple allegedly misappropriated up to €1m by setting up bogus jobs for Ms Fillon, including the role of parliamentary attachée.
One of the pillars of Project Fillon is the image of a selfless wife concentrating on bringing up her five children on the family’s rural estate, and thus sacrificing any chance of a professional career. She portrayed herself as an exiled Anglo-Welsh housewife, riding horses and studying Shakespeare in between household chores. As she said in a newly-uncovered English language interview in 2007, which is about to be broadcast on France 2 as part of an investigative documentary, “I have never been his assistant or anything of the sort.”
Fillon denied any wrongdoing. Now, however, the couple’s defence claims that she was a go-getting political executive all along – at one point earning up to €10,167 (£8,650) a month for her expertise and hard graft.
The logical way to uphold this sudden and hugely surprising change of status would be for Penelope Fillon to explain herself with dignity and conviction, to tour TV studios and public meetings showing off her record of service, and her qualities as a slick operator. Instead, when I saw her at one of her husband’s rallies on Sunday, she looked more like a despairing (and often utterly terrified) groupie. As the apparently unfazed Fillon made a bombastic speech on stage, she stared forward with tears in her eyes, shaking visibly like a rabbit caught in the headlights. Every time he grabbed her hand, she seemed to be even more scared.
In that sense, Penelope Fillon remains just the kind of woman that most members of the French political establishment expect her to be – especially right-wing conservatives like her husband. It was Fillon who, as prime minister, infamously “joked” that Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, who stood against him in the Republican Party presidential primary, might be barred from becoming a minister in his government because she was pregnant. Note too how, throughout the current crisis, Fillon has presented his wife as not only the main victim, but also the main problem. It is as if he is a white knight pressing on with his state duties regardless, while he tries to sort out his silly spouse’s self-inflicted woes.
Fillon is – like his wife – a devout Roman Catholic; all his social policies are rooted in a traditional view of family life. Yet the scandal also involves allegations about two of the couple's children appearing on the public payroll too, while they were still studying, even though Fillon originally claimed they were qualified lawyers. Interestingly, his daughter received 27 per cent less that his son in these questionable monthly payments.
The handful of people Penelope Fillon has been forced to discuss such details with behind closed doors are financial prosecutors and judicial anti-corruption police officers. Following a five-hour interrogation on Tuesday, it emerged that she had no recollection of signing work contracts, and had never picked up a parliamentary identification badge or even an email address. This after receiving her first remuneration from the public purse back in the 1980s. As far as the actual work done by Fillon’s wife is concerned, her lawyer admits it was not necessarily “tangible” and usually took place inside the couple’s family château, near Sablé-sur-Sarthe, some 160 miles from the National Assembly in Paris. It included “opening mail at home” and “meeting guests”.
Such revelations add a ludicrous element to the whole affair – yet one entirely in keeping with the caricature of a nice-but-daffy wife trying to please the macho careerist who tells her what to do at all times. For all we currently know, Penelope Fillon might not even have been told that she was among the most highly-paid members of her husband’s political staff.
Despite all this, it was Fillon himself who – along with other wild conspiracy theories – suggested that his legal difficulties were based on “misogyny”. Offering no evidence whatsoever, he claimed that sex discrimination was driving an unrelenting attack on his wife designed to destroy him.
If such a feminist argument is to be taken even slightly seriously, then perhaps Fillon should allow his wife of nearly 37 years to break her silence, and finally speak up for herself.
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