It was the scandal that turned the 2017 French presidential election on its head, sweeping away the favourite and allowing relative newcomer Emmanuel Macron to romp home.
On Monday, former prime minister Francois Fillon goes on trial in Paris on suspicion of misappropriating over a million euros in public funds, paid to his Welsh-born wife Penelope for a suspected fake job as a parliamentary assistant between 1998 and 2013.
The allegations that Penelope, who is also charged in the case, was paid up to 10,000 euros ($10,800) a month for little to no work buried Fillon’s presidential ambitions and caused his centre-right Republicans party to implode.
With the career politician defiantly refusing to stand aside, even after being charged, many right-wing voters drifted to the centrist Macron.
Fillon, 65, denies fiddling the system and insists that Penelope — who faces charges including complicity in misuse of public funds — did real work for him in his rural constituency of Sarthe.
But investigators say they have found little documentary evidence of her efforts.
The Fillons and a third defendant, Marc Joulaud, who stood in for Fillon in parliament when he was a cabinet minister and also hired Penelope as an assistant, face up to 10 years in prison.
In a TV interview last month, Fillon ruled out any political comeback, saying his priority was to defend his family’s honour.
“Penelopegate” was all the more damaging for the French right given that Fillon had campaigned for president as a man of integrity, boasting of his scandal-free past over his former boss and rival Nicolas Sarkozy.
“There have been a lot of scandals in French political life, but in general they had to do with party financing,” political historian Jean Garrigues told AFP, citing as an example the 2011 corruption conviction of former president Jacques Chirac.
By contrast, the Fillon affair — like the tax fraud scandal that brought down Socialist budget minister Jerome Cahuzac in 2013 — deeply shocked the French because it allegedly exposed a grubbier instinct, that of using elected office for personal enrichment.
“This affair exacerbated the mistrust in political elites and strengthened the perception that ‘they’re all rotten’,” Garrigues said.
French right in tatters
For the Republicans party, which had been savouring the prospect of retaking the Elysee Palace after five years of Socialist rule, the scandal was nothing short of disastrous.
For the first time in France‘s postwar history the main right-wing party was eliminated during the first round of voting for president, and voters also deserted the Republicans in the follow-up parliamentary vote.
The losses deepened the divisions within the party between a moderate, liberal centre and a hard-right camp accused of chasing after the far right by hammering against immigration and Islam.
Meanwhile, attempts to clean up French politics that began in the wake of the Cahuzac affair continued.
Hollande had already set up an independent agency in charge of vetting elected officials and senior public servants for possible conflict of interest and undeclared income.
Once elected, Macron also attempted to make his mark by prohibiting lawmakers and ministers from employing their family members and scrapping cash handouts for lawmakers to bestow on projects and NGOs of their choice.
“We can’t say that lawmakers have remained indifferent to the various scandals,” Jean-Francois Kerleo, a law professor and scientific director of France’s Observatory for Public Ethics, told AFP.
“There is a general demand for ethical behaviour and a realisation of the need for rules on how MPs use their office,” he said.
Distrust still runs deep
Yet despite the new faces and rules, distrust of political elites has continued to soar.
In a January 2019 OpinionWay survey published at the height of the “yellow vest” anti-government revolt, 85 percent of voters said they did not believe politicians cared about their problems and only 9 percent trusted political parties.
“Emmanuel Macron’s victory and the major political renewal of 2017 did nothing to change the distrust and in fact only reinforced it,” Garrigues said.
He linked the estrangement to the aloof style Macron was widely accused of adopting in his first year in office and to the fact that many of his centrist MPs come from a “wealthy, entrepreneurial” class that appears out of touch with ordinary people.
But Garrigues noted that the anti-elite sentiment also has an “irrational” quality.
“The truth is that transparency and integrity are a lot stronger today than in the past. But for some French people, those who are in power will never do enough,” he said.