Paris- French right-wing presidential candidate Francois Fillon, once seen as a front-runner to face the far-right Front National’s Marine Le Pen in the final round of the presidential election in May, has seen his ratings drop after anti-fraud prosecutors opened an investigation into allegations that he paid his wife and children large amounts of taxpayers’ money for fake parliamentary assistant jobs.
At a press conference on Monday, he refused to stand down as a candidate, insisting the jobs he gave his family were real, but he nonetheless offered his apologies to the French people.
Fillon apologized for employing his wife, while noting that it is not illegal and he is not the only politician to have done so.
“What was acceptable yesterday … is not today,” Fillon said.
“It was a mistake. I deeply regret it and I present my excuses to the French.”
French politicians are allowed to hire family members as aides as long as they actually do the jobs for which they are paid.
However, French prosecutors have launched a preliminary investigation into the possible misuse of public funds to determine whether or not Penelope Fillon in fact did any work for her husband.
That inquiry has now been extended to look at roles Fillon gave his children while he was a senator.
The preliminary probe involves suspicions of embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds.
Fillon’s popularity has dropped in the past two weeks following allegations that his British-born wife Penelope was paid 830,000 euros ($900,000) between 1998 and 2013 as a parliamentary assistant.
He also hired two of his children as assistants, paying them €84,000 pre-tax between 2005 and 2007.
The Paris prosecutor’s office on Thursday expanded its investigation to include Fillon’s son and daughter.
Fillon laid out for reporters in some detail his own facts about the accusations.
“Yes, I employed my wife as an aide,” Fillon said. He said she was paid an average 3,677 euros per month over 15 years.
“They call this job fictitious,” he said, laying out the ill-defined duties of parliamentary aides who work “in the shadows.”
“Her salary was perfectly justified because her work was indispensable to my activities as an elected official,” he said.
Fillon said the scandal grew out of a political conspiracy to take him out of the race, and make it a face-off between far-right leader Marine Le Pen — whose family he blasted as “untouchable” — and Emmanuel Macron, an untested former banker and Socialist Party maverick whom Fillon called a “guru.”
Fillon’s attempt to go on a counter-offensive came as Le Monde revealed new elements relating to the preliminary investigation.
The French newspaper reported that investigators were examining Fillon’s ties to Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière, the billionaire businessman owner of the literary magazine Revue des Deux Mondes, who is also reported to have allegedly paid Penelope Fillon €100,000 for doing little work.
The investigators are looking at whether the businessman paid Penelope Fillon about €5,000 a month pre-tax between May 2012 and December 2013 in return for being recommended by Fillon for France’s highest honor in 2010.
Fillon also gave details of the consulting firm he set up in 2012 at the end of his five-year term as prime minister.
The Canard Enchaîné, which broke the story of Penelope Fillon’s parliamentary assistant jobs, had reported that the company paid Fillon an after-tax salary of €757,000 since 2012.
Opponents had demanded he reveal the source of the money.
During the press conference, Fillon listed the company’s key clients and said no Russian business had paid him nor the Russian government, saying that all conferences he gave in Russia were free.
Besides far-right Le Pen and centrist Macron, Socialist Party candidate Benoit Hamon and far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon are running for president.