PARIS (Reuters) - The latest surprise in France’s presidential election campaign - allegations that the spouse of frontrunner Francois Fillon was paid well for work she did not do - is in a sense all too familiar.
Accusations of financial impropriety have a long history in France, where both the president and prime minister who ruled in the mid-1990s, Jacques Chirac and Alain Juppe, were found guilty of misusing public funds.
They were convicted, Juppe in 2004 and Chirac in 2011 after retiring, of misusing public money to keep political allies on the payroll of Paris City Hall for jobs they did not do.
In the present scandal, financial prosecutors have opened an inquiry into suspected misuse of public funds after a press report that Fillon’s British-born wife, Penelope, received hefty salaries for employment under Fillon as a legislator and later under his replacement in that role.
The satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine said it had found scarcely any sign that she had actually done any work in these jobs or in a subsequent one as a literary reviewer for a cultural journal.
Fillon, 62, a right-wing former prime minister, rejected the report, saying it showed “contempt and misogyny”, and adding:
“I see the stink bomb season has started.”
Many of the numerous cases of sleaze woven into the historical landscape of Europe’s second-largest economy are more often about influence-peddling and political cronyism than outright personal enrichment.
Things have also changed with reforms aimed at ensuring greater accountability and transparency, including under the tenure of current President Francois Hollande, who oversaw the creation of an independent authority to vet the integrity of financial declarations of ministers.
But nepotism is quite legal and widespread in, for instance, the National Assembly, the French parliament.
Rene Dosiere, a parliamentarian who tracks abuses of public money, said 92 members of parliament were known to have family members on the payroll.
But abuses of one kind or other remain a part of political life and not just for politicians and parties that have long held positions of power.
Just last December, Jerome Cahuzac, a budget minister in Hollande’s government who led a crackdown on tax evasion, was sentenced to three years in jail for hiding an offshore bank account of his own.
The National Front party of far-right leader Marine Le Pen, says it must win power to remove the “rotten” ways of the political establishment, but even it is being investigated on suspicion of improper financial conduct.
That judicial inquest concerns suspicions surrounding payments for assistants to representatives of the National Front in the European Parliament, including Le Pen’s payments to her partner and fellow National Front activist Louis Aliot.
Former president Nicolas Sarkozy was dogged throughout his 2007-2012 term and afterward by a myriad of judicial inquiries into suspect financing of his election campaigns, even after the reform of funding rules.
Fillon now has to now clear his name - something he is not used to doing.
After 30 years in politics, his closest shave with accusations of financial abuse was limited to excessive use of a government Falcon jet to go to his manor house about one and a half hour’s car ride west of Paris during his time as prime minister from 2007 to 2012.
As Fillon’s lawyer went to the financial prosecutor to clear his name on Thursday, his campaign coordinator, Bruno Retailleau, used an eerily familiar phrase to defend him.
The affair, which has rapidly been dubbed “Penelope-gate” in the French press, is a saga that will soon vanish into thin air, he said.
Employing an expression Chirac used in 2001 to brush off accusations that he spent public money on holiday flights for friends, Retailleau said of the Fillon controversy, in French: “Cette affaire fera pschitt”. (“This affair will go ‘pschitt’”)
Pschitt is an onomatopoeic word in French for the kind of sound a firework makes when the fuse burns but it fails to ignite.
Reporting By Brian Love; Editing by Richard Balmforth/Mark Heinrich