PARIS • Mr Francois Fillon fought to keep his place as French conservative presidential candidate amid sliding opinion poll ratings and speculation about his ability to carry on, after accusations that his wife and two of his children were paid large sums of money for work they did not do.
Police carried out searches at the Senate yesterday for information concerning payments made to Ms Marie Fillon and Mr Charles Fillon, who worked as parliamentary aides to their father when he was a senator between 2005 and 2007, the public prosecutor said.
A second opinion poll this week showed a large majority of French voters believed the former prime minister should pull out of the election, a two-round contest that opens on April 23.
The Odoxa poll for France Info radio showed 61 per cent believe Mr Fillon, 62, was wrong to persevere in his presidential bid. The poll was carried out online on Wednesday and Thursday among 997 people.
On Wednesday, an Elabe poll showed he would crash out in the first round of the election behind far-right leader Marine Le Pen and fast-rising 39-year-old centrist Emmanuel Macron. The poll showed Mr Macron going on to easily defeat Ms Le Pen in May's run-off.
Mr Fillon vowed at a rally on Thursday in north-eastern France to fight what he called a "demolition exercise", telling a crowd of around 1,000: "People are not seeking justice. They are seeking to destroy me, and beyond me to destroy the Right and steal an election."
Until the scandal over payments to his wife and family surfaced last week, Mr Fillon was enjoying what looked like a near unassailable lead over other presidential contenders, ahead of Ms Le Pen and Mr Macron.
SOME BREAKING RANKS
A million euros is no small sum. He (Fillon) does not command unanimous backing.
MS RACHIDA DATI, who served as justice minister during the term of Mr Nicolas Sarkozy.
Sniping from his own right-wing political camp continued, primarily from politicians connected to party grandees he beat to win the presidential ticket of The Republicans party.
"A million euros is no small sum," said Ms Rachida Dati, who served as justice minister during the term of Mr Nicolas Sarkozy. "He (Fillon) does not command unanimous backing," she told RMC radio. Mr Sarkozy, who was president from 2007 to 2012, lost to Mr Fillon in the Republican primary ballot that picked the candidate for the 2017 election.
THEY'VE GOT HIS BACK
We give Francois Fillon our complete support because his commitment to France is vital.
A GROUP OF LEADING REPUBLICANS, who stand by Mr Francois Fillon.
However, a group of leading Republicans said on Thursday that they would stand by their man.
"We give Francois Fillon our complete support because his commitment to France is vital," the group, which included former finance minister Francois Baroin, wrote in the right-wing Le Figaro daily.
Mr Fillon has denied any wrongdoing since the graft allegations were first reported last week by Le Canard Enchaine newspaper.
On Thursday, a prime-time TV programme broadcast an old interview in which Mrs Fillon appeared to say she had no role as an employed assistant under her husband. "I have never been actually his assistant or anything like that. I don't deal with his communication," she said in the 2007 interview with Britain's The Telegraph newspaper.
The candid remarks were likely to compound suspicions that she was paid for a fake job. Her lawyer insisted her remarks had been "taken out of context".
Ms Le Pen's party, the anti-establishment and anti-immigration National Front, yesterday called on Mr Fillon to withdraw his candidacy.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE