PARIS (AFP) - French presidential candidate Francois Fillon on Monday apologised for the "error" he made in hiring his wife as a parliamentary aide while denying she was paid for a fake job.
"I apologise to the French people," conservative candidate Fillon told a press conference, admitting it was an "error" that he regretted "deeply".
In an aggressive performance that saw him accuse the media of trying to destroy him politically, Fillon said his British-born wife Penelope's salary was "perfectly justified" and he would continue in the presidential race.
Addressing allegations that Penelope did not actually perform any duties to earn hundreds of thousands of euros, Fillon said: "No-one has the right to judge what a parliamentary assistant's job consists of, except the MP himself."
He said his wife had worked constantly to assist in his constituency business and that her average monthly salary of 3,700 euros ($4,000) after tax over 15 years had been fair for a woman with training in law.
Fillon's presidential bid has been floundering since it emerged that his wife earned more than 800,000 euros (S$5,606) as a parliamentary aide to her husband and an ally. In the past, she has said she was never her husband's assistant.
Fillon also paid two of his children to act as assistants.
The revelations have triggered an investigation into possible misuse of public funds.
Polls show the former frontrunner would now crash out of the first round of the election in April.
Fillon, a devout Catholic who won the nomination of the Republicans party in November on a pledge to slash public spending, has vehemently denied any wrongdoing.
But his listing poll numbers have sown alarm in his camp, leading some members of his party to call for a backup candidate.
Some have suggested former prime minister Alain Juppe, the runner-up in the Republicans primary, should step forward.
But 71-year-old Juppe on Monday again ruled out being a surrogate candidate.
"I've set out my position: it's no, clearly and definitively," Juppe told reporters in the south-west city of Bordeaux, where he is mayor.