PARIS / AP
Francois Fillon’s embattled right-wing candidacy for the French presidency faced more revelations on Thursday casting doubt on the legitimacy of his wife’s taxpayer-funded work and fueling questions about whether the former front-runner’s campaign is now damaged beyond repair.
Allegations that Penelope Fillon was handsomely paid as a parliamentary aide, first reported by French weekly Canard Enchaine and now being investigated by French prosecutors to see whether the work was genuine, have thrown open the presidential race that had been shaping up as a two-horse race between the ex-prime minister and the far-right’s Marine Le Pen.
France Televisions said it would screen extracts on Thursday evening from an interview with Penelope Fillon in 2007, when her husband was prime minister, in which said she had never worked as his assistant. That appears to contradict the couple’s defense in recent days that she was legitimately employed as his parliamentary aide. The allegations that Fillon’s family used his political connections to enrich themselves with cushy parliamentary jobs have been particularly damaging for his image as an upstanding Catholic family man and country gentleman untainted by the long history of sleaze in French politics.
His prospects of winning elections in April and May, and President Francois Hollande’s crippling unpopularity, are together threatening to bring down France’s left-right political system.
With Hollande having abandoned hopes of a second five-year term and Fillon weakened, National Front leader Le Pen and independent maverick candidate Emmanuel Macron are making hay.
Seeking to shore up their candidate, not least because they have no obvious replacement waiting in the wings, senior conservatives rallied around Fillon on Thursday, declaring their “total” support and denouncing what they called 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 defense,” 17 conservatives, including former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and other former ministers, said in a tribune in daily Le Figaro.
Particularly jarring for some voters has been the contrast between Fillon’s words and supposed actions: The allegations of cushy work for his family came as he has campaigned on promises to slash public sector jobs and make the French work harder and longer.
French politicians are allowed to hire family members as aides, on condition that they actually do the jobs for which they are paid. Fillon insists that Penelope’s work for him was genuine. French national financial prosecutors are investigating, seeking to determine whether there are grounds to suspect embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds.
Fillon and his wife were separately questioned by investigators for five hours on Monday.
The Canard Enchaine reported in its Wednesday issue that Penelope Fillon made 830,000 euros ($900,000) over 15 years.
Their daughter, Marie, and son, Charles, also were hired by Fillon as parliamentary aides when he was a French senator in 2005-2007, earning 84,000 euros ($91,000) in total, the paper said.
Fillon has said 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 reported. According to Le Canard Enchaine, they drew paychecks not for assignments, but two full-time jobs.