Riviera Reporter
Riviera Reporter

Penelope Fillon, the PM's wife: From Monmouthshire to Matignon

With her five children, five horses and a husband who’s Prime Minister of France Penelope Fillon is one Welsh immigrant who has settled in well. She talked to Patrick Middleton

Penelope FillonThe Welsh seem less ready to leave their native country than their Celtic cousins the Scots and the Irish. When the young Penelope Clarke – as she then was – announced she was going to move permanently to France how did family, friends and neighbours react? “Let me correct you first of all – we’re not quite as stay-at-home as you suggest. I’ve recently been with my husband on an official visit to Argentina and I learned some more about the Welsh community in Patagonia – some of them still speak the language. As to my own case, I left at the end of the Seventies when going abroad to live wasn’t so unusual.” But how did she come to make the decision? “I started at university by taking a degree in languages and that involved a year abroad. I was an assistante in a lycée in Le Mans and that’s where I met François. I returned to the UK to continue my studies – I qualified as a solicitor – and in 1980 we got married.”

“A mixture of influences”

That was in Llanover, the village near Abergavenny where she was born and raised (and whose most famous son is Benjamin Hall, once Clerk of the Works at the Palace of Westminster, hence “Big Ben”). So how Welsh is she? “Good question. The UK media – especially in Wales – made quite a story of the French Prime Minister having a Welsh wife. In fact, Monmouthshire, my native county, is border country, with a mixture of English and Welsh influences. I don’t speak Welsh, not a word. On the other hand I had no doubt about where my loyalty lay during the Rugby World Cup and I get a lump in my throat when I hear one of those male voice choirs. And then I’m aware that I’m different in some ways from both the English and the French. I’ve got the Welsh readiness to show emotion quite openly ... at least in private. We don’t really go in for the stiff upper lip.”

Another cultural influence on Penelope Fillon has surely been the law: daughter of a lawyer, sister of a lawyer, wife of a lawyer, mother of a lawyer and herself a qualified solicitor. Has that affected her? “When I think about it – yes. You can’t live with lawyers from childhood without taking on their cast of mind. You tend to look for general principles to apply to problems.” Was she, like many people with a legal training, attracted to politics? “Not at all and nor was François initially. In fact, he wanted to be a journalist. What happened was that while he was finishing his degree he worked in the private office of Joël Le Theule, then Minister of Defence, who died suddenly. François was persuaded to succeed his late boss, first as a local councillor and shortly after in parliament. He got into politics almost by accident and it became his job.”

How difficult is it to be a politician’s wife, especially one with the high profile of a Prime Minister? “We’ve got five children, aged between six and twenty-five, so I’ve always had a lot to do in the home. Until François became a senior minister I lived at our country home in the Sarthe and he was four days a week in Paris. For the last few years that’s not been possible so we’ve spent much more time in Paris as a family though we still get to the country as often as possible.” And life at Matignon? “We try to have a normal family life – two of the children are still at home – and the staff are very helpful and understanding. Personally, I manage to live more or less as I want. I can go shopping, even stop by at a café, and I don’t get bothered. I’d say a political wife can have the life she wants if she’s determined to do so.”

Retire to Wales ... “It would be wonderful”

Penelope Fillon has lived full-time with the French for almost thirty years. Obviously she gets on with them. What’s the secret? “As with any people, you have to accept their differences and come to terms with them. Their attitudes to things aren’t always the same as you’d find in Monmouthshire. I’d think of their approach to friendship, say, or to making changes in the way things are done. Or even the way they relate to horses. At our country home in the Sarthe I’ve got five horses – I’ve always loved riding – and I’ve noticed the French seem to treat their horses differently. For me a horse is a friend you develop a personal bond with; the French seem to regard their mounts in a much more impersonal way.” Madame Fillon speaks of the Sarthe and her neighbours there with obvious affection. In places, she says, the landscape reminds her of Monmouthshire. According to one report François Fillon, a frequent visitor to Llanover, has a long-term ambition to retire to Wales. How does his wife feel about that? “It would be wonderful.”

From Riviera Reporter Issue 126: April/May 2008

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