PARIS: French conservative candidate Francois Fillon battled to keep his presidential hopes alive ahead of a major rally on Sunday as his wife broke her silence over the “fake jobs” scandal that has threatened to engulf his election bid.
In her first interview since the allegations broke, British-born Penelope Fillon told Le Journal du Dimanche she had carried out “a lot of different tasks” for her husband and urged him to “keep going to the end”.
Fillon was the frontrunner until mid-January when the Canard Enchaine newspaper alleged he paid his wife and two of their children nearly US$950,000 as parliamentary assistants or advisors.
French lawmakers are allowed to employ family members, but investigators are searching for evidence of what work she did. “He needed someone to do a lot of different tasks, and if it wasn’t for me, he would have paid someone to do it, so we decided it would be me,” Penelope told Le Journal du Dimanche.
With pressure building on Fillon, Penelope said she had urged her husband to keep going. “I said to him that he had to keep going to the end. Every day I told him that” but “it’s up to him to decide”, she told the weekly newspaper.
Fillon, who turned 63 on Saturday, has struggled to turn the page on a nightmare week that saw a haemorrhage of support after he disclosed he would face charges over allegations he gave his family fake parliamentary jobs.
The former prime minister has claimed that the accusations are politically motivated, even hinting he believes the ruling Socialist government is behind the investigation. His own right-wing Republicans party announced that its political decision-making body would meet Monday evening – a day earlier than planned – “to evaluate the situation”.
It also emerged that police raided the Fillons’ country manor house near the northwestern town of Le Mans on Friday looking for evidence. The couple’s Paris apartment was searched on Thursday.
With some members of his own party urging him to drop out, Fillon will attempt to regain the initiative with a major rally Sunday near the Eiffel Tower in what appears to be a last ditch effort to stay in the race.
The danger for the right is that he could be eliminated in the first round of the two-stage contest on April 23. Opinion polls currently show that far-right leader Marine Le Pen and 39-year-old centrist Emmanuel Macron would progress to contest the runoff on May 7.
On Wednesday, Fillon revealed he would meet investigating magistrates on March 15 and be placed under formal investigation – the equivalent under French law of being charged. He had previously said he would step down if such a development happened. But, to the dismay of many of his aides, he angrily accused the judicial system of bias and vowed to fight on.
Among those who walked out were his foreign affairs point man and campaign spokesperson, and the leader of the small centrist UDI party said it was withdrawing its backing.
On Saturday, five members of the European parliament from the Republicans also withdrew their support and called for another candidate to be quickly appointed.
With just seven weeks to go before polling day, the entourage of 71-year-old former premier Alain Juppe has said he is prepared to take over. Juppe, who is more centrist than Fillon, was given a suspended jail sentence in 2004 over a party funding scandal.
A poll on Friday showed Juppe would vault into the lead if he stood. Juppe would have 26.5 per cent of votes, narrowly ahead of Macron on 25 per cent, while Le Pen would slip to third place on 24 per cent, according to the Odoxa-Dentsu Consulting survey of 943 people.
Le Pen, 48, campaigning on an anti-immigration and anti-EU platform, has sought to capitalise on the anti-establishment sentiment that propelled US President Donald Trump to power and led to the British vote to leave the European Union.
Polls currently show however that the National Front chief will be beaten in the second round by either the fast-rising Macron or the conservative candidate.