A Paris court on Monday sentenced French former prime minister Francois Fillon to five years in prison, three suspended, for orchestrating a fake job for his wife in a scandal that cost him his shot at the presidency in 2017.
Fillon's wife Penelope was given a suspended three-year sentence for participating in the scheme that saw her paid over one million euros in public funds over a 15-year period.
The case was widely seen as a test of whether French politicians would now be held to account after decades of getting off lightly on charges of nepotism or financial misconduct.
Fillon and his wife were also ordered to pay fines of 375,000 euros ($423,000) each.
Presiding judge Nathalie Gavarino said Fillon, 66, pursued "personal enrichment" over the common good and "contributed to an erosion of public trust" in elected leaders.
A third defendant, Marc Joulaud -- who stood in for Fillon in parliament when he was a cabinet minister and who also hired Penelope Fillon as an assistant -- was given a suspended three-year sentence.
The three were ordered to collectively reimburse one million euros to the National Assembly, where Penelope supposedly worked as Fillon's parliamentary assistant from 1998 to 2013.
Facing two years behind bars, Fillon was allowed to leave the courthouse a free man, for now, after the couple's lawyers said they would appeal.
"Obviously, this ruling is not fair," Fillon's lawyer Antonin Levy said.
The couple did not make any statement to dozens of journalists gathered as they left the courthouse.
- Swift downfall -
The allegations that Fillon pilfered public coffers for years pummelled his image as an upright fiscal hawk promising to right the country's finances -- and loomed large in the "yellow vest" anti-government protests that rocked the country in 2018-2019.
A newspaper report on the fake job surfaced in January 2017, just after Fillon clinched the nomination from his rightwing Republicans party for a presidential race he was widely tipped to win.
It later emerged Fillon had used public money to pay two of his children a combined 117,000 euros for sham work while he was a senator, before becoming premier in the government of then-president Nicolas Sarkozy.
The court Monday convicted the couple on this charge too, and for Penelope's receipt of 135,000 euros for largely fictitious "consulting work" for the millionaire owner of a literary magazine.
Defence lawyers struggled at the trial this year to provide documented proof that she actually did any work -- and the head of the magazine, Marc Ladreit de Lacharriere, had already pleaded guilty to the fake job charges.
The court on Monday barred Fillon from holding public office for 10 years, while Penelope received a two-year ban.
If the ruling is upheld, she will have to abandon the local council seat she was re-elected to last March in the northern town of Solesmes.
- 'Penelopegate' -
Fillon's lawyers sought to have the trial restarted after the former head of the Financial Prosecutor's Office (PNF), Eliane Houlette, told lawmakers this month she had met with "pressure" to bring charges quickly against the ex-premier.
But the court rejected this request Monday, even though President Emmanuel Macron -- whose path was cleared by Fillon's downfall -- has asked for an investigation into the prosecutor's claims.
"Penelopegate," as the scandal became known, torpedoed the career of one of France's right-wing stars, who was the youngest member of parliament when first elected at just 27 years old.
Fillon met his Welsh-born wife while she was studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, and the couple soon married and moved to an imposing country estate near Le Mans where they raised their five children.
Penelope Fillon told the court she spent a lot of time sorting her husband's mail, attending public events near their rural manor and gathering information for his speeches.
But investigators seized on a 2016 newspaper interview in which she said: "Until now, I have never got involved in my husband's political life."
Fillon insists he was set up for "political assassination" by his rivals and was the victim of a biased judiciary.