World

French prosecutors expand fraud probe into presidential candidate François Fillon

Conservative candidate François​ Fillon, once the front-runner in France's presidential race, is facing a political maelstrom after first his wife, then his children became targets in an embezzlement probe into paid — but allegedly fake — political jobs.

Conservative presidential hopeful is alleged to have given family fake but paid government jobs

The couple appear at a campaign meeting in Paris on Jan. 29. Financial prosecutors are investigating an allegedly fake but handsomely paid job held by the former prime minister's wife for 15 years. (Christophe Ena/Associated Press)

Conservative candidate François Fillon, once the front-runner in France's presidential race, is facing a political maelstrom after first his wife and then his children became targets in an embezzlement probe into paid — but allegedly fake — political jobs.

The decision Thursday by the national prosecutor's office to expand its investigation into Penelope Fillon's work as a parliamentary aide to her husband to include a son and a daughter added a whole new layer of worry for both Fillon and his party, which is watching its chances of regaining power dwindle.

French national financial prosecutors have been investigating Penelope Fillon's work, seeking to determine whether there are grounds to suspect embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds. The Canard Enchaine weekly reported Wednesday that she made €830,000 ($1,160,000 Cdn) over 15 years.

French presidential candidate François Fillon cannot shake the corruption scandal that's following him. The Conservative candidate is alleged to have used public money to pay his wife and two of his children for jobs they didn't do. (Christophe Ena/Associated Press)

A person close to the investigation told The Associated Press on Thursday that prosecutors have extended the probe to cover the couple's daughter, Marie, and son, Charles. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity, because they were barred from discussing the investigation publicly.

Fillon's election prospects damaged

Allegations that Fillon's family used his political connections for personal enrichment have been particularly damaging for the former prime minister's image as an upstanding Catholic family man and country gentleman untainted by the long history of sleaze in French politics.

The contrast stings because Fillon has promised to slash public sector jobs and make the French work harder and longer.

The hit to Fillon's prospects of winning France's two-round presidential election in April and May has thrown wide open the race that had been expected to be between him and far-right National Front Leader Marine Le Pen. With Fillon weakened and the unpopular Socialist President François Hollande having abandoned hopes of running for a second five-year term, Le Pen and independent maverick Emmanuel Macron are making hay ahead of the April 23 first-round vote.

Far-right leader of the National Front, Marine Le Pen, had been expected to face off against Fillon in France's two-round presidential election in April and May, but the allegations have thrown the race wide open. (Christophe Ena/Associated Press)

A possible run-off vote between Le Pen and Macron on May 7 would augur a total upset of France's political landscape, for it would not include the traditional right, represented by Fillon, nor the Socialist left, which fell into disarray under Hollande.

Heckled on campaign trail

An angry Fillon addressed a rally Thursday night in Charleville-Mezieres, in northeast France, calling the allegations attacks on him and the right.

"I'm not a dupe. It's not justice that they're after — it's to break me," he said, insisting "there is nothing illegal."

His eyes appeared teary as he called on the crowd to support him.

"My friends, I ask you to help me resist," he said.

Earlier in the day, Fillon was heckled by a young man who yelled "Fillon, thief! Resign!" during a stop at a daycare centre.

A newsstand owner picks up a copy of the satirical newspaper Le Canard enchaîné in Paris on Wednesday. The dirt-digging weekly reported that Fillon hired his children as parliamentary aides. (Bertrand Combaldieu/Associated Press)

The Canard Enchaine reported that Fillon hired his children as parliamentary aides when he was a French senator from 2005 to 2007, and they earned €84,000 ($118,000 Cdn) in total.

Fillon has confirmed he paid two of his children, "who were lawyers," for "specific assignments" when he was a senator. However, Marie and Charles still were in law school when they worked for their father, French media say. According to Le Canard Enchaine, they drew paycheques not for assignments but for two full-time jobs.

Marie and Charles Fillon did not respond to emails or telephone messages from the AP.

'I've never been actually his assistant'

French politicians are allowed to hire family members as aides as long as they actually do the jobs for which they are paid. Fillon also insists that Penelope's work for him was genuine.

But France Television's Special Envoy show on Thursday night dug up an interview of Penelope Fillon in 2007, just after her husband became prime minister, in which she said she had accompanied him during his electoral campaign, slipped political leaflets under doors — but added "I've never been actually his assistant … I don't deal with his communications."

That appears to contradict the couple's defence that she was legitimately employed.

Fillon and his wife were separately questioned by investigators for five hours Monday and her lawyer said Penelope Fillon gave investigators evidence that her work for her husband was genuine. (Etienne Laurent/EPA)

Her lawyer, Pierre Cornut-Gentille, said Penelope's words were being taken out of context. He insisted she was a woman of great discretion, always concerned "not to appear as if she exercised a public political role."

Fillon and his wife were separately questioned by investigators for five hours Monday and her lawyer said Penelope Fillon gave investigators evidence that her work for her husband was genuine.

Senior conservatives rallied Thursday around Fillon, denouncing an "attempt to kill" his candidacy.

"They're throwing to the wolves a man, his wife, his children, his colleagues, without waiting for their arguments or listening to their defence," 17 conservatives, including former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, said in a tribute in the Le Figaro newspaper.

now