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A French appeals court on Monday upheld a conviction against former right-wing prime minister Francois Fillon for providing a fake parliamentary assistant job to his wife that saw her paid hundreds of thousands of euros in public funds.
The "Penelopegate" scandal, revealed in a media report while he was the front-runner in the 2017 presidential race, torpedoed his political career and cleared a path for then-relatively unknown Emmanuel Macron to win the race.
Fillon, a hard-nosed fiscal conservative, angrily denied the claim and insisted that his wife Penelope Fillon had done genuine constituency work while he was an MP for the western Sarthe department.
But prosecutors insisted there was scant record of any actual work and noted she had rarely joined her husband at the lower-house National Assembly, which was a civil plaintiff in the case.
The court trimmed Fillon's sentence to four years in prison with three suspended -- down from five years with three suspended when he was first found guilty in 2020.
Penelope Fillon was given a suspended two-year prison sentence for the embezzlement and complicity in misuse of public funds charges, down from three years suspended, but the court maintained fines of 375,000 euros for each of them.
They were also ordered to repay 800,000 euros ($845,000) to the National Assembly, which reimbursed Penelope for the job as Fillon's assistant.
Under French sentencing guidelines, it is unlikely that Fillon will spend any time behind bars, and can be ordered instead to wear an ankle-bracelet.
The couple was not in court for the verdict, and their defence team said they would lodge a further appeal with France's supreme court.
"The court did not draw the conclusions of its own findings with regards to the evidence demonstrating the reality of Mrs Fillon's work," the lawyers said in a statement.
- 'Never got involved' -
At the November appeals hearings, prosecutors said there was clear evidence that Fillon and his stand-in as MP for the Sarthe department, Marc Joulaud, employed Fillon's wife Penelope in an "intangible" or "tenuous" role as a parliamentary assistant between 1998 and 2013.
The court also upheld Monday the original three-year suspended sentence for Joulaud.
Fillon, now 68, was widely tipped to win the 2017 presidency race when the Canard Enchaine newspaper reported that Penelope had been his parliamentary assistant for 15 years, earning some one million euros over the period.
It later emerged that Fillon also used public money to pay two of his children a combined 117,000 euros for allegedly sham work while he was a senator, before he became premier in the government of president Nicolas Sarkozy from 2007 to 2012.
On Monday, the court overturned that conviction, however.
But he was again convicted, in a third fraud case, of getting the millionaire owner of a literary magazine to pay his wife 135,000 euros for "consulting work" that was largely fake.
The magazine's owner, Marc Ladreit de Lacharriere, pleaded guilty to the charges in December 2018, and was given a suspended eight-month prison sentence and a 375,000 euro fine.
Lastly, he was again found not-guilty of failing to declare an interest-free loan of 50,000 euros from Ladreit de Lacharriere in 2013.
Fillon insisted he was the target of a "political assassination" and before the appeals court he insisted that Penelope's "on-the-ground" work in Sarthe was "immaterial" but very "real."
"I was not a fake deputy only concerned about money," he said.
But investigators seized on a 2016 newspaper interview in which Penelope said: "Until now, I have never got involved in my husband's political life."
Since withdrawing from politics, Fillon had held jobs on the boards of Russian petrochemicals giant Sibur and hydrocarbons firm Zarubezhneft.
He has quit both posts since Russia's invasion of Ukraine.