Probe presses on against France's Fillon as his ratings dip | Reuters

 Probe presses on against Frances Fillon as his ratings dip
| Reuters

By Richard Balmforth

PARIS A financial probe into past employment held by the wife of French presidential frontrunner Francois Fillon pressed ahead on Friday as an opinion poll showed the affair may be hurting his campaign for the Elysee.The conservative former prime minister had seemed odds-on to win the presidency in elections to be held in three months' time, until a satirical weekly published its story this week.The report said his wife had received a big salary from fake jobs including several years as his parliamentary assistant. An official inquiry into the allegations has been opened.The affair has dented a wholesome image of honesty that Fillon, 62, a devout Catholic with 30 scandal-free years in political office, has sought to project in his campaign.Though it is legal in France for parliamentarians to employ members of their families, financial prosecutors have moved quickly to probe suspected misuse of public funds, and on Thursday met Fillon's lawyer.Fillon made a spirited defence of both himself and his wife, Penelope, on television on Thursday night, describing the allegations as an "abject" attack on his honour aimed at harming his campaign for the presidency.An Odoxa poll, carried out online on Thursday before his television appearance, showed a four-point popularity drop since its last survey on Jan. 8.Harris Interactive separately showed a drop of a single percentage point for him compared with December, with the views collected over the days immediately following the report.

The scandal around the Fillons has raised the stakes in the election and added uncertainty to the race for the Elysee.KNOCKOUT CONTEST
Most political commentators foresee a knockout contest between him and far-right leader Marine Le Pen, with Fillon winning easily. Polls give him a majority of around two thirds that would be hard to erode with barely three months to go to the predicted showdown on May 7.

Fillon is a political insider with a long track record in navigating treacherous waters.But the affair involving his Welsh-born wife has rattled his campaign and worried lawmakers in his party, The Republicans.Le Canard enchaine weekly said Fillon's wife had been paid roughly 600,000 euros ($640,000) for employment by him and for subsequent work for his successor in parliament and later as a literary reviewer for a cultural journal. Fillon did not deny that figure. The Canard enchaine said there was little sign Penelope Fillon had done any work in any of the jobs. Fillon brushed this aside, saying she had been working for him ever since he entered politics more than 30 years ago.

"Without the work my wife carried out I would not be where I am now," he said.He said he would abandon his presidential campaign if he was placed under formal investigation.Financial police investigators, acting on instructions from the financial prosecutor, on Friday met Michel Crepu, the former director of the literary review for which Penelope Fillon was reported to have worked for 10 months.They were also scheduled to meet Christine Kelly, a former biographer of Fillon. Crepu repeated on Thursday that he had never known Penelope Fillon was working for the review. (Additional reporting by Simon Carraud, Gerard Bon and Ingrid Melander; Editing by Andrew Callus and Andrew Roche)

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Updated Date: Jan 27, 2017 22:17:35 IST