France’s presidential candidate vows to stay in race

Francois Fillon

France’s troubled conservative presidential hopeful, Francois Fillon, vowed on Wednesday to stay in the race, in spite of revealing that he faces charges over allegations he gave his wife a lucrative fake job as his parliamentary assistant.

Mr. Fillon, who said he had been summoned for questioning and charging on March 15 by investigating judges, slammed the conduct of the inquiry as an “assassination.’’

He argued that it was “unprecedented’’ for judges, who took over the case from prosecutors on Friday, to proceed to charges so quickly “without becoming familiar with the case or carrying out supplementary investigations.’’

Mr. Fillon has slipped into third place in the polls, behind far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron, since satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaine first published the allegations about his wife Penelope’s job in January.

His announcement ended hours of speculation after he unexpectedly stayed away from a major campaign stop, leaving political backers who had been waiting for him at the Paris agricultural fair at a loss.

The timing of the summons was “entirely calculated to prevent me being a candidate and to prevent the right and centre from having a candidate,’’ Mr. Fillon charged.

But he said he would attend the hearing, unlike his far-right rival Marine Le Pen, who last week defied a summons from police investigating allegations that she wrongly claimed reimbursements from the European Parliament for salaries for her aides.

“I will tell them my truth, which is the truth,” Mr. Fillon, who has consistently denied any wrongdoing, told a meeting room packed with supporters and press.

Mr. Fillon vowed to contest the race, saying he “will not permit’’ the electorate being forced to choose between “the mad adventure of the extreme right or the continuation’’ of Hollande’s policies.

The subject of the latter dig, Macron, who previously served as economy minister under the unpopular socialist President Francois Hollande hit back sarcastically at Fillon’s talk of an “assassination’’ by the judiciary.

“Several times now this week Mr Fillon has used big words.

“It looks like a sign that he’s losing his nerve, or maybe losing his sense of reality,” Macron said.

Mr. Fillon has acknowledged that his wife Penelope received a total of 680,000 euros in salaries over 15 years, but says she genuinely worked for him.

He also argues that the judiciary has no jurisdiction over how members of parliament employ or pay their assistants.

The allegations are particularly embarrassing as Mr. Fillon has pledged to cut 500,000 public sector jobs as part of a programme to slash the state budget and liberalise the economy.

Polls now show Mr. Fillon behind both Le Pen and Macron, leaving him liable to be knocked out of the race in April’s first round of voting.

(dpa/NAN)


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