The Penelope Fillon mystery


The cover story of this week’s edition of Paris-Match is a portrait of Penelope Fillon, the British wife of the French conservative presidential candidate François Fillon. The article was clearly an attempt by François Fillon’s public relations team to dampen the scandal which has dented his campaign after it was revealed he paid his wife and two of his children out of parliamentary funds for work it is alleged was never carried out. But, writes Mediapart poltical analyst Hubert Huertas, the portrait of the central but mute character in the affair has in fact simply served to increase the mystery surrounding Penelope Fillon and the unease over her image as her husband’s “mute muse”.

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She is pictured with the pope, with Nicolas Sarkozy, with Prince William, Bernadette Chirac, Frédéric Mitterrand and on the day of her marriage. It is the usual style of article dedicated to a celebrity, but one might be tempted to say it is more the proof of a life, such it is that the existence of this woman as a person has become wrapped in a sort of taboo.

We know that Penelope Fillon exists; there is talk only of her ever since weekly investigative and satirical journal Le Canard enchaîné revealed that she had been paid hundreds of thousands of euros as the parliamentary assistant of her husband, conservative presidential candidate François Fillon, allegedly on false pretences.  Ever since that first report in late January, great attention is given to what she said in the past and what she might say in the future. But apart from her appearances in archive photos, she remains enigmatic. The more her portrait is dressed, the more she melts away.    

The cover of this week's Paris-Match. The cover of this week's Paris-Match.
The lengthy article about her in this week's edition of Paris-Match magazine is no exception. It is a celebrity piece which is supposed to bring the public closer to its subject, but in fact it distances us from her. She appears even more translucent, still more dispersed than before reading the article. The journalists who wrote the piece, Pauline Delassus and Pauline Lallement, struggled with her absence, as they themselves write: “To be personal without ever giving oneself away, to make oneself pleasant but not unforgettable,” reads the first paragraph. “It is quite an art…which leaves the dessert with a strange taste of something,g uncompleted.”

Further down is a comment from Penelope Fillon that is rather odd given the context of the photo reportage: “I would be horrified if people recognised me”, followed by a somewhat unsettling commentary, “She would like to be spectral”.

All through the article, the Penelope of Sablé-sur-Sarthe, the Fillon political fiefdom in north-west France, is thrown back to the Pénélope of the late French singer-songwriter Georges Brassens, arguably one of his finest songs, and one of the most moving: “You the model wife, the household charm, you who has no tear in your wedding dress, you the uncompromising Pénélope, during nights of spleen and sadness, have you never during a dream, under the canopy of another bed, searched the sky for other stars?” A wife from an epic poem of Ancient Greece represented in a woman of today, one who resembles those of the 1950s, humble, subjugated, resigned, and who does not have the right to speak without her husband’s authorization.

Indeed, towards the end of the article, François Fillon speaks in the old manner of the family boss. “Penelope is ready to talk, but for the moment I’m not for it,” he told the magazine.

What is striking in this portrait biased towards her and which was intended to be kindly, is that it in fact accentuates the disturbing affair. The Fillon scandal is so serious, its political consequences during presidential elections are so grave, and the very destabilization of the Fifth Republic is so advanced just two months before first-round voting begins, that we have forgotten the other reality within the affair, which is that of this woman. She was no longer a person, but rather an issue, one of the pieces on a chessboard in a game played between others. In normal times, French society could have been indignant over such a situation, but in these times of crisis it did not notice.

The events are however quite singular. This woman, perhaps promised to become France’s First Lady, finds herself at the heart of the storm and she says absolutely nothing. She does not defend herself. She is paraded before everyone at her husband’s public meeting, like a mute muse behind an invisible gag. The whole of France talks of nothing other than her, and the only direct quotes from her are those found in news archives, notably explaining that she would like to ‘exist’.

She has no right to speak.  We live in a mixed-up society, which is officially shows concern at the situation of Muslim women who live in submission, and this mother and housewife, the wife of a potential future president, is being managed like an underage child.

By deciding it would be a good idea to display her in a wide-selling publication, without authorizing her to talk, the public relations team behind François Fillon have revived the unease. Behind the more than 1 million euros of public money that was discreetly recycled within the Fillon family there is hidden a more disturbing mystery. That of the effacing of the central character, the parliamentary assistant named Penelope Fillon. If she is for nothing in this scandal, is she behaved like the woman described in the portrait, namely, a wife in the style of bygone days, then she is sending us back to the past, to a time when women did not have bank accounts and when the head of the family was allowed to sign contracts without consulting his other half.


The French version of this article can be found here.


English version by Graham Tearse

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