France's Francois Fillon tries to revive scandal-hit campaign

France's Fillon vows to stand firm in his presidential bid even after fresh allegations arose over payments to his wife.
The woes of Fillon (above, in a file photo) have benefited his main rivals in the presidential race, far-right leader Marine Le Pen and centrist former banker Emmanuel Macron.
The woes of Fillon (above, in a file photo) have benefited his main rivals in the presidential race, far-right leader Marine Le Pen and centrist former banker Emmanuel Macron.PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS (AFP) - Francois Fillon sought to revive his scandal-hit bid for the French presidency on Tuesday (Feb 7) as yet more allegations about his wife's job as a parliamentary aide emerged.

Fillon, whose bid for power has been in turmoil since it emerged his British-born spouse Penelope was paid hundreds of thousands of euros for a suspected "fake job", admitted Monday he had made an "error".

On Tuesday, the Canard Enchaine newspaper behind the original revelations published new claims that could stymie his attempt to put the scandal behind him.

The paper said Penelope - who earned over €800,000 pre-tax (S$1.2 million) for 15 years of employment as a parliamentary assistant - also received €45,000 in severance pay after the end of two of her contracts.

She received a first payout of €16,000 in 2002 at the end of a contract with her husband - only for her to be rehired as an aide two weeks later - and a second payment of €29,000 followed in 2013, the Canard wrote.

The paper also reported that investigators probing the possible misuse of public funds had been unable to find "the slightest trace of Penelope's 15 years of work."

Fillon says the investigation violates the principle of separation of powers between the judiciary and the legislature.

Reacting to the Canard's latest allegations, he accused the century-old satirical weekly of printing "lies."

Tuesday's report "constitutes nothing new and has obvious mistakes," he said in a statement.

Earlier, he travelled to the northeastern Aube region for a factory visit, seeking to regain lost ground with less than three months to go before the first round of the election on April 23.

On Monday, he attempted to bury the two-week-old scandal, telling a press conference he "profoundly regretted" employing his wife, while insisting he had done nothing illegal and that he was the target of a "media lynching".

An opinion poll, however, showed that his explanations had failed to convince two-thirds of voters, and just one in three of those questioned believe he should remain as the conservative candidate.

When just rightwing supporters were quizzed, support for Fillon was far higher, with between 58 per cent and 62 per cent saying they found his version of events credible, according to the Harris Interactive survey.

Fillon's surprise victory in the rightwing primary in November was built largely around a pledge to slash public spending and cut the jobs of 500,000 civil servants.

His woes have benefited his main rivals in the presidential race, far-right leader Marine Le Pen and centrist former banker Emmanuel Macron, who is running under the banner of his own political movement, En Marche (On the Move).

Polls carried out before Monday's press conference showed that Fillon, for months the leader of the presidential race, would now be eliminated in the first round on April 23, with Le Pen and Macron moving on to the May 7 runoff.

Le Pen said she was baffled by Fillon's explanations.

"He said he didn't want to put himself through trial by media and then he calls a big press conference to ask forgiveness for something which he explains is perfectly legal and that there is no problem," she told LCI television.

The leader of the National Front (FN) has her own expenses concerns, with the European Parliament demanding she repay €300,000 in allowances that it says she spent paying a Paris-based aide.

Le Pen, who has a seat in the European Parliament, is refusing to meet the demands, saying she did nothing wrong.

Fillon, too, has insisted he has no case to answer, saying his wife played a real, if discreet, role in managing his affairs in his central Sarthe constituency.

Her average net monthly salary of €3,677 euros was "perfectly justified" given her background in law and literature, he said on Monday.

He also quashed speculation that he could be forced to step aside in favour of another Republicans candidate. "There is no plan B," he said.