French conservative François Fillon suffered new setbacks Thursday to his presidential candidacy, with prosecutors expanding an embezzlement probe into his wife’s paid political job to include two of their children.
An old interview, meanwhile, is coming back to haunt his wife, Penelope.
French national financial prosecutors have been investigating Penelope Fillon’s work as a parliamentary aide to her husband, seeking to determine whether there are grounds to suspect embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds.
A person close to the investigation said that prosecutors have extended the probe to also cover the couple’s daughter, Marie, and son, Charles. The person spoke on condition of anonymity, because they were barred from discussing the investigation publicly.
Allegations that Fillon’s family used his political connections to enrich themselves with cushy parliamentary jobs have been particularly damaging for the former prime minister’s image as an upstanding Catholic family man and country gentleman untainted by the long history of sleaze in French politics.
The contrast between Fillon’s words and his supposed actions sting because he has promised to slash public sector jobs and make the French work harder and longer.
His nose-diving prospects of winning France’s two-round presidential election in April and May have thrown open the race that had been expected to be between him and the far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen.
The Canard Enchaine weekly has reported that Fillon hired his children as parliamentary aides when he was a French senator from 2005-2007, and they earned 84,000 euros ($91,000) in total.
Fillon has confirmed that 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 have reported. According to Le Canard Enchaine, they drew paychecks not for assignments, but for two full-time jobs.
French politicians are allowed to hire family members as aides, as long as they actually do the jobs for which they are paid. Fillon insists that Penelope’s work for him was genuine.
Piling on the pressure on Fillon, France Televisions said it would screen extracts 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.
Fillon and his wife were separately questioned by investigators for five hours on Monday and the Canard Enchaine reported Wednesday that she made 830,000 euros ($900,000) over 15 years.
With Fillon weakened and the catastrophically unpopular Socialist President François Hollande having abandoned hopes of running for a second five-year term, far-right leader Le Pen and independent maverick Emmanuel Macron are making hay.
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, said in a tribune in the Le Figaro newspaper.