Fillon, Penelopegate and France's election explained

Adam PLOWRIGHT
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French presidential election candidate for the right-wing Les Republicains (LR) party Francois Fillon looks on during a meeting with the head of France's UDI political party at his campaign headquarters in Paris on March 14, 2017

France's rightwing presidential candidate Francois Fillon was charged Tuesday with misusing public funds over a fake jobs scandal that has crippled his campaign.

AFP explains the scandal, dubbed "Penelopegate" by the French media, in five questions:

- Who is Francois Fillon? -

Fillon, 63, was prime minister from 2007 to 2012, the high point of a political career spanning nearly four decades. He entered parliament aged just 27.

The devout Catholic, formerly with a reputation as "Mr Clean", emerged in November as the surprise nominee of the conservative Republicans party after promising to slash public spending and cut bureaucracy.

Before the fake jobs scandal emerged at the end of January, voter surveys consistently showed him as the likely winner of the two-round presidential election on April 23 and May 7.

He married his Welsh-born wife Penelope, who is 62, when they were in their twenties. She has retained a low profile over the years, until the fake jobs scandal erupted and threw the spotlight on her.

- What is he accused of? -

Between 1986 and 2013, Penelope was paid a total of 680,000 euros ($725,000) net from public funds available to lawmakers to run their offices in the national parliament.

She was employed as an assistant either directly by Fillon or by the man who replaced him in parliament while he was a cabinet minister, Marc Joulard.

Fillon also employed two of his five children, Charles and Marie, as assistants for various periods between 2005 and 2007.

While employing a family member is not illegal, Fillon has apparently failed to convince investigators that Penelope earned her salary, which exceeded 10,000 euros a month in 2007.

From May 2012 to December 2013, while employed at the parliament, Penelope was also paid 3,500 euros net a month by the magazine La Revue des Deux Mondes which is owned by Fillon's friend, the tycoon Marc Ladreit de Lacharriere.

In the most recent scandal, which came to light only last week, Fillon is accused of receiving an interest-free loan of 50,000 euros from Ladreit de Lacharriere in 2013 that he failed to report to a state transparency watchdog.

- What have they said? -

Fillon has apologised for employing his wife, which he said was a longstanding parliamentary practice deemed unacceptable by French people nowadays, but he has forcefully denied any illegality.

He believes the Socialist government, the media and the justice system are colluding to try to torpedo his campaign in an attempted "political assassination".

Fillon, who initially pledged to step aside if he is charged, overcame widespread unease within his party to carry on with his bid for power.

In a March 5 interview with the Journal du Dimanche newspaper, Penelope said she had handed over documents showing that she edited her husband's work and handled mail for him.

But she had neither a security pass for the parliament building in Paris nor a work email account.

French media have found few witnesses to her work and have unearthed previous interviews given last year and in 2007 in which she says she plays no role in her husband's political life.

- What happened on Tuesday? -

Fillon announced on March 1 that he was to appear before the magistrates on Wednesday, but he brought the meeting forward a day so that it could take place "in a calm manner", according to his lawyer.

The candidate was "mis en examen", a French legal term with no direct equivalent in English.

Under the British or US systems, it is best translated as "charged" and means investigating magistrates deem there is sufficient evidence to justify deepening the probe.

The alleged fake jobs in parliament have led to a charge of misuse of public money, while Penelope's stint at Ladreit de Lacharriere's magazine could represent the misuse of corporate assets.

The undeclared loan from the billionaire friend meanwhile led to a charge of failing to declare assets fully to a public transparency watchdog.

Penelope has been summoned before the magistrates on March 28.

- What about the election? -

Fillon's standings in the polls have plummeted and he is now credited with around 20 percent of the vote in the first round of the election in April, meaning he would be eliminated.

The top two candidates are currently shown as far-right leader Marine Le Pen and independent centrist Emmanuel Macron. The 39-year-old Macron is shown as the clear winner of the second-round run-off if the election were held now.

But Fillon remains convinced he can make up the ground in the next six weeks, building on the loyal core of voters who have stuck with him despite his troubles.

His determination to stand has exposed old divisions in his party, however, and led some parliamentary colleagues to fear for their seats in national assembly elections scheduled in June after the presidential vote.