PARIS • The wife of scandal-hit French conservative presidential candidate Francois Fillon has broken her silence over the "fake jobs" scandal that threatens to engulf his bid for power.
The former prime minister hopes to keep his election hopes alive, with a rally in Paris yesterday, but he is struggling to regain the initiative after a week in which members of his team deserted him.
Their departures followed Mr Fillon's disclosure that he would face charges over claims he gave his British-born wife and two of their children bogus parliamentary jobs.
In her first interview yesterday since the allegations broke of nearly €900,000 (S$1.35 million) in pay, Mrs Penelope Fillon told Le Journal Du Dimanche that she had carried out "a lot of different tasks" for her husband during his lengthy political career.
She had urged him to "keep going to the end" but said that only he could make the decision to stay in the race.
SOMEONE HAD TO DO IT
He needed someone to do a lot of different tasks, and if it wasn't for me, he would have paid someone to do it, so we decided it would be me.
MRS PENELOPE FILLON, on the work she has done for her husband's political career.
Mr Fillon, who turned 63 last Saturday, was once the front runner in an election in which Ms Marine Le Pen is attempting to steer the far right into power in a major European country.
But his support plummeted after the claims were made and he is now polling third, behind Ms Le Pen and 39-year-old centrist Emmanuel Macron.
French lawmakers are allowed to employ family members, but investigators are looking into what work Mrs Fillon did, after it emerged that she did not even have a pass for the national assembly building.
"He needed someone to do a lot of different tasks, and if it wasn't for me, he would have paid someone to do it, so we decided it would be me," Mrs Fillon told the paper.
Mr Fillon has claimed that the accusations are politically motivated, even suggesting he believes the ruling Socialist government is behind the investigation. He told supporters last Saturday their opponents were trying to "intimidate" them.
The danger for the conservative Republicans party is that an election they once expected to win handily could slip away if Mr Fillon remains their candidate.
Polls currently show he could be eliminated in the first round of the two-stage contest on April 23, leaving Ms Le Pen and Mr Macron to contest the May 7 run-off.
The Republicans' decision-making body is to meet this evening - a day earlier than planned - "to evaluate the situation", the party said last Saturday.
Pressure grew on Mr Fillon after it emerged that police had raided his country manor last Friday, looking for evidence. His Paris apartment was searched a day before that.
Mr Fillon was a surprise winner of the conservative nominating contest in November, campaigning as a "Mr Clean" unsullied by the legal difficulties of his opponents and pledging to slash the jobs of half a million civil servants. But the claims about his expenses have led to barbs from critics that his moral authority has been undermined.
Last Wednesday, Mr Fillon revealed that he would meet investigating magistrates on March 15 and be charged. His wife is also to face charges.
He had previously said that he would step down if such a development happened. But, to the dismay of many of his aides, he has angrily accused the judicial system of bias and vowed to fight on.
Last Saturday, five Members of the European Parliament from the Republicans party called for another candidate to be appointed before the March 17 deadline.
With just seven weeks to go before polling begins, the entourage of 71-year-old former premier Alain Juppe has said he is prepared to take over. But Mr Juppe, who is more centrist than Mr Fillon, also has baggage. He was given a suspended jail sentence in 2004 over a party funding scandal.
Yet a Odoxa-Dentsu Consulting survey last Friday showed that Mr Juppe would vault into the lead if he stood.