PARIS: French rightwing presidential candidate Francois Fillon will try on Thursday to keep his embattled campaign on track after he revealed he is to be charged over a fake jobs scandal that has dogged his bid.
The 62-year-old conservative former prime minister was favorite at the turn of the year to become France’s next leader after clinching the nomination for the Republicans party in November.
But allegations that he used public funds to pay his British-born wife, Penelope, and two of their children around 900,000 euros ($950,000) for fake parliamentary jobs have eroded his support, and on Wednesday he announced that he would face criminal charges over the claims.
Fillon will meet investigating magistrates on March 15 but he issued a defiant statement, saying the charges were “entirely calculated to stop me being a candidate for the presidential election.”
“I won’t give in, I won’t surrender and I won’t withdraw,” Fillon said, claiming he was the target of a “political assassination.”
A source close to the case told AFP that Penelope, who shuns the limelight, would also be summoned to be charged.
Within hours of Fillon’s press conference, support began to ebb away.
A senior aide, Bruno Le Maire, quit his team and criticized him for backtracking on a pledge to step aside if he was charged. A small centrist party, the UDI, said it was “suspending” its support and would decide whether to withdraw its backing for good.
One poll showed Thursday that only 25 percent of French people thought Fillon should carry on with his presidential bid, a sharp drop compared to early February.
Fillon’s woes are the latest twist in an extraordinary campaign that culminates in a two-stage contest on April 23 and May 7.
On Thursday, high-flying centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron unveiled his policy program in an attempt to answer critics who say the 39-year-old former economy minister is all image and little substance.
As part of his agenda, he vowed to end nepotism in government by preventing parliamentarians from employing their family members.
Macron, who launched his political movement only last April, is currently shown as the winner of a presidential run-off vote in May, with polls indicating he would face far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
Fillon meanwhile will visit the Gard region in southern France.
His advisor Jerome Chartier said he was also planning a rally in Paris on Sunday.
“It’s a rally to support Francois Fillon, not a rally against the judges,” Chartier told French TV.
Fillon has been defiant throughout the scandal that has shadowed him since January, insisting publicly that the facts will exonerate him and reminding his party that they have few attractive alternatives to replace him.
But he will now face his biggest challenge yet to keep his Republicans party colleagues in line, with some members known to be plotting against him.
The allegations are particularly damaging after he campaigned as a sleaze-free reformer who would slash wasteful public spending.
Macron to benefit?
Polls currently show Fillon finishing in third place in the first round, behind Le Pen and Macron.
Bruno Jeanbart from the Opinion Way polling group told AFP that either Macron or Le Pen were best placed to benefit from Fillon’s difficulties.
“One can imagine that it would more likely be Macron,” he said.
Fillon angrily claimed that the justice system was being manipulated, with the help of the media, to prevent him from standing in the vote.
“The presumption of innocence has entirely and completely disappeared,” he said.
Fillon’s being summoned means that investigating magistrates believe there is enough evidence to charge him for embezzlement of public funds, which could lead to a trial.
His criticism of the probe drew a sharp rebuke from Socialist President Francois Hollande.
“Merely being a presidential candidate does not give one the right to criticize the justice system,” Hollande said.
The Socialist candidate for the presidency, leftwinger Benoit Hamon, said Fillon’s accusations against the judges “were of an incredible violence.”
Heckled at farm show
When Fillon, a father of five from near Le Mans in northwest France, attended a farm show in the capital after his announcement, he was mobbed by the media amid conflicting shouts of “Fillon, President!” and “Thief! Give the money back!” from critics and supporters.
Though employing a family member is not illegal for French politicians, Fillon has not published evidence of Penelope’s work beyond contracts which show various periods of employment since 1988.