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Macron seeks review of fraud case against ex-rival Fillon

President Emmanuel Macron has called for a probe into claims that prosecutors were pressured to move fast in a fraud inquiry against Francois Fillon, a former prime minister and his main rightwing rival in France's 2017 presidential race.

Macron seeks review of fraud case against ex-rival Fillon
Francois Fillon. Photo: AFP

Fillon lost what many considered a certain victory after a newspaper report claimed that he orchestrated a fake parliamentary assistant job for his wife that saw her paid hundreds of thousands of euros (dollars) in public funds.

A ruling will be handed down on June 29 after a trial in which Fillon vigorously denied the claims, saying he was the victim of a political hit job.

The scandal flared anew this week after it emerged that the former head of France's Financial Prosecutor's Office (PNF) told lawmakers she had sustained “pressure” and “very strict oversight” aimed at bringing charges quickly against Fillon.

Fillon's supporters seized on the comments as proof that the prosecutor's superiors, possibly acting at the behest of justice ministry officials, had infringed upon the judiciary's independence to speed his downfall.

He was charged six weeks after the fraud claims emerged in the Canard Enchaine newspaper, an unusually swift move in a country where legal inquiries can take months or years.

The top Paris public prosecutor denied exercising any undue pressure, and on Friday the former financial prosecutor, Eliane Houlette, tried to walk back her statements, saying she “regretted” that they had been “distorted or misunderstood.”

 

But the uproar prompted Macron's office to say late Friday that the president had asked France's judicial watchdog, the Supreme Judiciary Council, to investigate the claims.

“These statements, which have provoked a significant outcry, have been interpreted as showing that pressure could have been put on the judiciary during a critical moment in our democratic process,” the Elysee Palace said in a statement.

“It is therefore essential to remove all doubt on the independence and impartiality of the justice system in this matter,” it said.

Prosecutors have asked the Paris court to give Fillon, 66, a five-year sentence, with three years suspended, as well as a three-year suspended jail term for his Welsh-born wife Penelope.

They accuse Fillon of paying his wife 613,000 euros net ($700,000) in public money over 15 years for a fictitious job, saying the couple produced no solid proof she ever carried out any significant work.

 

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POLITICS

French diplomats to strike over ‘avalanche’ of reforms

French diplomats are to strike next month for only the second time in their history, protesting an "avalanche" of reforms that unions say are undermining the foreign service at a time of global tensions.

French diplomats to strike over 'avalanche' of reforms

“The Quai d’Orsay is disappearing little by little,” read a statement from six staff unions, using a familiar name for the French foreign ministry’s headquarters on the south bank of the Seine in central Paris.

The main complaint is a reform to career structures which will see the special status accorded to the most senior diplomats scrapped from next year, unions say.

“These measures dismantling our diplomatic service make no sense at a time when war has returned in Europe,” their joint statement said.

Under changes championed by President Emmanuel Macron, and rushed through by decree in April, top foreign service officials would lose their special protected status and be absorbed in a larger pool of elite public sector workers.

This could mean France’s roughly 700 most senior diplomats being asked to join other ministries and facing competition from non-diplomats for top postings.

“We’re very worried,” one serving diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity. “We’re not interchangeable. I have the utmost respect for my colleagues in other state services but I don’t know how to do their job and they don’t know how to do mine.”

The strike has been called for June 2nd.

France has the third-biggest foreign service in the world after China and the United States, with around 14,000 employees at the foreign ministry in total.

The vast majority of these are non-diplomats or people on local contracts in countries around the world.

The aim of the government shake-up is to encourage more mobility between state services, which have historically been divided up into separate units with rules and job protections that make moving between them very difficult.

The government is also keen to attract new, more diverse candidates to the diplomatic service by opening new routes to the ministry, but critics see a danger of political interference.

“The door is now open to American-style nominations,” former ambassador to Washington and vocal critic of the reform, Gerard Araud, tweeted last month.

American ambassadors are named by the president, who often uses the power to reward political allies and donors with plum foreign postings.

The last and only strike by French diplomats was in 2003 to push for pay increases.

The stoppage on June 2nd underlines “the real malaise in the ministry, which does not have a rebellious culture,” Olivier da Silva from the CFTC union said.

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