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French presidential hopeful Fillon rejects allegations of wife's 'fake job'

Pierre Constant, AFP | Presidential hopeful François Fillon poses prior to a broadcast interview at French TV channel TF1, on January 26, 2017, just outside Paris.

Former French prime minister François Fillon said on Thursday he would stick to his presidential bid, rejecting press allegations that his wife drew a salary as his assistant but never actually worked.

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Fillon, who told TF1 television his two children also did work for him at some point when he was senator, added that his wife Penelope had worked for him since his first election in 1980.

Satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné reported this week that Penelope Fillon had been paid some 600,000 euros ($645,000) for many years of employment as a parliamentary assistant to Fillon, then as his replacement as a National Assembly lawmaker and also for work she did at a cultural journal.

The newspaper said its research had showed there was no evidence she had ever really worked.

Fillon said that was not true. His wife, he said, did work that included press reviews, proofreading his speeches and meeting people for him. During Thursday night's interview, he told TV host Gilles Bouleau he would "provide all the necessary proof" to the judge in charge of the investigation.

The shocking revelations prompted financial prosecutors on Wednesday to open a preliminary investigation into Penelope Fillon’s employment for “misuse of public funds”.

The scandal has thrown a monkey wrench into Fillon’s presidential campaign, which slammed the case as “completely unfounded”.

‘I didn’t hire my wife, I married my aide’

Unlike some countries, France does not prohibit members of its Senate or National Assembly from hiring relatives.

In 2014, French investigative website Mediapart revealed that at least 20 percent of MPs had immediate family members on their staff.

Up until then, lawmakers were not required to disclose payroll information. But a new rule passed by the High Authority for Transparency in Public Life that year made it a matter of public record.

The move outraged several politicians, who saw it as a witch hunt. “I didn’t hire my wife, I married my aide,” Claude Bartalone, president of the National Assembly, told Mediapart at the time.

'Not my natural habitat'

Yet even if Fillon is able to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that his wife worked for him, there is still the issue of how much she was compensated.

French law limits members of the National Assembly to a maximum of five staff members, who are paid from a monthly budget of €9,561.

But according to Le Canard Enchaîné, Penelope Fillon sometimes earned upwards of €7,000 per month – or almost the entire budgeted amount – during the 14 years she worked on and off as her husband’s parliamentary aide.

The huge sums of money contrast starkly with her image as a quiet mother of four and supportive wife.

"I'm just a country peasant, this is not my natural habitat," Welsh-born Penelope Fillon told Britain’s Sunday Telegraph of life in Paris after her husband was appointed prime minister in 2007.

If the allegations prove to be true, it could hurt Fillon’s chances at winning France’s presidential election in May.

He is currently the frontrunner in the race, with recent polls putting him ahead of far-right leader Marine Le Pen, independent candidate Emmanuel Macron and the far-left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

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