Shortly after François Fillon was appointed Premier Ministre in Nicolas Sarkozy’s government on his election in 2007, I managed to get an exclusive interview with his British-born wife Penelope Fillon. I met her at their country residence in Sarthe, and enjoyed hearing how life in the public eye was something she never expected to experience when she married a young man she met while studying abroad in her early 20s.
The Prime of her Life
When Welsh student Penelope Clarke chose to spend the third year of her French degree in Le Mans, she could not have imagined how the choice would change her life so completely. Coming from a close-knit family in South Wales, the decision resulted in her going on to be the wife of the second most powerful man in France. Now, as she sits chatting in the garden of her 12th-century château, she seems very much at home in the rural countryside of Sarthe. The country home, with its 18th-century tower and 20 acres of woodland, is just an hour and a half from Paris but it’s a world away from the political fast lane in which she now finds herself.
Penelope Clarke met fellow student François Fillon in 1976 at a dinner party during the year she spent working as a language assistant in Le Mans as part of her French degree. Their romance continued to blossom after she had returned to the UK to study law, and after a year she decided to move back to France permanently. In June 1980 the couple were married in the church of her home town, Llanover, near Abergavenny.
“He didn’t have any political ambitions,” she laughs, as she explains how M. Fillon had no intention of going into politics. As the parliamentary assistant to Joël Le Theule, the MP for the area, M. Fillon intended to work for only a year to gain an insight into French politics before becoming a journalist. However, as Le Theule’s career went from strength to strength – becoming Minister of Transport then Minister of Defence – M. Fillon decided to stick with the job to learn more. Then, in 1980, Le Theule died suddenly of a heart attack, aged just 50.
“This was six months after our wedding, and, at that point, the people of Sablé didn’t have a mayor conseiller général anymore, or an MP. So they asked François if he’d be interested in starting off and he thought ‘why not’?” Fillon was elected to the Conseil Général in 1981 and, in the Presidential election in June of that year, was elected MP of Sablé-sur-Sarthe at the age of 27. Just two years later he was elected Mayor, a position he held for a further 18 years.
As the family grew – the couple have five children aged between six and 25 – and Fillon’s political career took him to Paris, the family began splitting their time between Sarthe and the capital. Then, six years ago, Mme Fillon and the children began living in Paris from Monday to Friday. Despite now living at Matignon, France’s equivalent of Britain’s 10 Downing Street, Mme Fillon prefers being here at their permanent home in the small town of Solesmes. “I’m a country girl at heart and I’m sure there are other places in France that are just as peaceful, but this is the part I know best.”
Although the landscape is somewhat flatter than that around her home town of Llanover in south Wales, the département of Sarthe is certainly peaceful. The family’s château sits along the department’s eponymous river and has, albeit tenuous, historical links to the English. “It belonged in the 16th century to a nephew of the famous [Bertrand] du Gesclin, who slaughtered the English. So there is a slight connection to the English already,” she laughs. “Though, as it was his nephew, he may have been a bit more favourable towards the English!”
The house sits on the boundary between the two areas of l’Anjou and La Maine and was probably built, as Mme Fillon explains, “as a look-out in the 12th or 13th century”.
The property now has its own look- outs, of sorts. Since M. Fillon’s appointment as Prime Minister in May, gendarmes have been posted on each of the gates and are a constant reminder that the head of the household’s career has moved beyond representing the local area. Mme Fillon admits that the additional security has been the biggest change to the family’s home but accepts that this is simply ‘a part of the job’. She explains, with a smile, that the family dog, a red setter named Paddy, seems to have embraced a new role as ‘guardian’ and spends most of his time with the police officers.
Although the family have been based in Paris for the last six years while M. Fillon held various cabinet positions under his predecessors Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Dominique de Villepin, the whole family has had to adapt to life in the spotlight.
“The security aspect is much more intense at Matignon,” she says. “We live in a small flat with three of our youngest children and as soon as you go past the door there is the garde républicaine [official guards]. At quarter past eight in the morning, when you’re rushing to get to school with Arnaud [their youngest child], you feel you should be dressed respectably. If there’s a meeting and the press are there to photograph everyone going in, you come nose to nose with them. I’ve discovered the back ways of going in and out.”
The press have nicknamed Mme Fillon ‘France’s second lady’ but it’s a title she tries her best to play down, stating that the other wives of French Prime Ministers have never been in the limelight. Yet, despite her protestations, Mme Fillon cannot deny she is an object of curiosity. As the first British woman to be married to a French Prime Minister, both the French and British have been keen to know more about her, not least because her story is so different from that of France’s ‘first lady’ Cécilia Sarkozy. While Cécilia’s story plays out like a soap opera in the pages of Paris Match, Mme Fillon, known to the French as ‘Péné-lopp’ and Penny to her friends, is consistently described as ‘très, très discrète’, agreeing to very few interviews and staying out of the limelight as much as possible. It is little wonder then, that she considers the position of first lady a challenging one.
“I think that must be quite a task,” she says. “But on the other hand, perhaps as society changes, people now don’t expect the first lady to be completely behind her husband as was Madame de Gaulle. It has changed. Madame Chirac had more of an existence of her own and though she did act as the wife of the President perhaps the next stage now, with Madame Sarkozy, is to be more independent. I’m not sure if you can split the two – it’s a very difficult balancing act.”
As well as their dual existence in the city and the country, the family has, of course, both a French and British identity, of which they are very proud. “They love England,” says Mme Fillon, speaking about their five children. “They spend their holidays there, so everything is wonderful. My daughter (Marie, 25) considers herself half and half, while the boys perhaps consider themselves more French than English. They all speak English reasonably well, but when Charles (23) was small, he used to cry when I spoke to him in English.” The family’s British connection doesn’t end with M. and Mme Fillon’s relationship. Her sister Jane married François’ brother Pierre, an eye surgeon, and the couple live with their family in Le Mans. After her sister’s marriage, their father Colin Clarke, a English solicitor, jokingly told his other two daughters they were banned from marrying Frenchmen.
Despite having lived in France for the last 30 years and being married to the Prime Minister, Mme Fillon tries to keep in touch with her British roots as much as possible by reading the British newspapers and listening to Radio 4’s Today programme on a daily basis. “French radio is something I’ve never been able to get used to,” she explains. “In the mornings they talk so fast and loudly. I don’t like making generalisations, but it’s so French. You sometimes wonder if they know the rest of the world exists. On Today, you get a view of the whole world and what’s going on everywhere.”
There are other things, too, that frequently remind her that she isn’t a native: “Things like their driving and the way they take everything very seriously – there isn’t the humour that we take for granted. There are, obviously, people who are funny, but their approach to things tends to lack, how can I say this, a pinch of salt.” Indeed, Mme Fillon’s sense of humour is something that immediately strikes you about her as is her very English sense of style. Yet, when it comes to her Sarthe home, she admits she is perhaps more French than she realises. “An English woman who lives in Solesmes came for tea and, when she came in, said ‘How French!’ even though I think it’s quite English inside.”
Her use of language also belies her Britishness in that, despite her clipped home counties accent, she speaks – as British people often do when they’ve spent a long time in France – as if her sentences are translated directly from French. When it comes to rugby, however, her loyalty goes to her native Wales, as she recently demonstrated during the Rugby World cup. “I always support Wales in rugby matches,” she says. “When it’s England against Wales, it’s Wales. When it’s France against Wales, it’s Wales. When it’s England against France, it’s England.”
As someone so proud of her Anglo-Welsh identity, Mme Fillon can see parallels with those from certain areas of France. Although Wales shares Celtic links with Brittany, it is the Basque country – where her mother-in-law hails from – with which she identifies most. “The pays Basque on the French side reminds me of Wales. The Basque people are fascinating and very strong, very proud people.” Of course, as well as a similar landscape, what the Basque people share with the Welsh is a desire to uphold their own language and culture, but as a non-Welsh speaker, this isn’t something with which Mme Fillon particularly identifies. “I’m all for upholding the Breton and Welsh languages, it’s very important to maintain those languages and the culture. But I wouldn’t go as far as being violent or militant for that sort of thing.”
While Mme Fillon’s mother-in-law has Basque origins, she is also quite an Anglophile, having taught English at Le Mans University. Her father-in-law, on the other hand, perhaps has different views of the British. “My husband’s father is pure Vendéen, and they are also people with a very strong identity. I think he has more memories of the French traditional opposition to the English and had never set foot in England until he came over to meet my parents. I think we converted him!” she laughs. Mme Fillon admits that her view of Britain is as it was 30 years ago and with Sarthe being so tranquil, it is perhaps little wonder that she prefers being at Château de Beaucé than anywhere else. Not only is she proud of the garden – beautifully kept despite being completely overgrown when they bought the property 15 years ago – she keeps horses in the grounds. She also loves the hidden corners of the château, such as a 18th-century tower, where she loves to sit and read and do yoga.
In the area, meanwhile, she says that on the trips along the River Sarthe “you see a completely different view of things” and that the nearby château de Bourgon, in Montourtier, “is a magical place in an extremely beautiful situation”. With such an empty and picturesque landscape on the doorstep, where better to escape to when life in France’s political fast lane gets too much?