Pénélope and Penelope

François Fillon’s wife Pénélope has been charged with fraud for doing for him what my wife Penelope does for me.

She looked after her husband’s affairs, opened his mail, drafted replies, stood in for him at parties he either couldn’t attend or didn’t want to.

This is where the similarity ends. Penelope is English, while Pénélope most emphatically isn’t, though the French press routinely refers to her as such. She’s Welsh, and trust the French to be deaf to such vital distinctions.

The Welsh serve as the butt of English jokes, which answers the question once posed in jest by quiz show hostess Anne Robinson: “Why do we need the Welsh? What are they for?” Much of the mockery is aimed at their language that sounds as if it’s all sibilants and no vowels. It’s certainly written that way. The Welsh also chose as their national symbol that most unprepossessing of all vegetables, the leek.

The important difference is that I’m in no position to make the state pay Penelope for her help, whereas François did just that for Pénélope. This raises all sorts of interesting moral dilemmas.

Can we monetise the domestic service provided by a wife to a husband? I’ve seen all sorts of calculations to the effect that, for a wife to improve the family’s fortunes by going off to work and outsourcing domestic services, she’d have to make over £50,000 a year.

I don’t know how that sum is calculated, and whether, say, sex is included. After all, if a man had to seek solace on the side, he’d have to have either amateur or professional mistresses, and both cost, especially the former.

But excising the naughty rubric and accepting that calculation as a base, Pénélope got paid considerably more than €60,000 a year (today’s derisory equivalent of £50,000) for being parliamentary assistant to her husband. This, though she hardly ever went anywhere near Luxembourg Palace and only did for François what Penelope does for me, free of charge.

There’s also the small matter of the €100,000 Pénélope received for writing two articles in Revue des Deux Mondes, a magazine owed by François’s friend and donor.

Even assuming that Pénélope’s literary gifts are much superior to my own, that kind of fee makes me turn green with envy: the most I ever received for an article was 600 quid. Then again, the Fillons’ detractors may have a point when saying that the sum represented not so much a fee as a donation in disguise.

Immoral? Corrupt? Probably. But do let’s put it all in context.

Different groups have different feelings about various transgressions. If, for example, an Englishman or even a Frenchman dined on a friend’s leg, we’d recoil in horror and scream about throwing away the key. However, in a cannibal tribe such a culinary practice might only elicit a request for the recipe.

Extrapolating from this reductio ad absurdum, things like sex scandals are viewed differently in England and France. Being caught in flagrante delicto could derail the career of an English politician, while for his French colleague it might provide a boost – as long as he doesn’t look ridiculous, as Hollande did with his motorcycle helmet.

The same goes for fiscal corruption. An English politician may be fundamentally corrupt in his approach to his duties (Dave Cameron, ring your office). However, for as long as this corruption remains intellectual and moral, he’s on safe grounds. But a whiff of the odd backhander, and the safe grounds turn into a minefield.

Now, from what I’ve seen, the French attitude to the corruption that really matters in a politician is as lackadaisical as ours. But their attitude to fiscal corruption is much more so. The French tend to shrug their shoulders in that inimitable Gallic manner and say something like “of course, my friend, the whole world does it, but no?”

However, from time to time a fiscal scandal does break out, with some sticky-palmed politico singled out pour encourager les autres. Given the generally permissive atmosphere, a suspicion always lingers that the poor sod was picked on for reasons other than moral indignation.

This isn’t a far cry from Putin’s kleptofascist regime, where a public figure is only ever charged with corruption for political reasons, of which falling out with Putin is the most frequent. The difference is that in France the accused is seldom ‘whacked’, at least not since Mitterand’s tenure, but we aren’t into details here.

Hence François and Pénélope fight back, claiming that the chat was let out of the sac by those trying to scupper François’s presidential campaign. They’re even prepared to hint at the culprit by saying that his Christian name is the same as M. Fillon’s.

Since neither Hollande nor his party is likely to benefit electorally from besmirching the Fillons’ reputation, perhaps the finger ought to be pointed in a different direction, but that’s not the point. The point is that in all probability the charges against Pénélope are indeed politically motivated. The cui bono principle would suggest it was Macron who was the instigator, but one never knows.

How would I vote in the French election if I could? It’s when this question comes up that I’m happy I don’t live in France full-time. The choice is between a fascist openly financed by Putin, a right-of centre chap who seems to like the British (especially the Welsh) but has also taken Putin’s rouble, and a left-of-centre chap who may dislike Putin but definitely hates the British.

The other two being totally unsavoury, I suppose I’d have to vote Fillon, if only because our wives are namesakes. But a note to my French friends: Pénélope and Penelope are pronounced differently.

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