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French prosecutors open official probe into Fillon's 'fake jobs' scandal

Patrick Kovarik, AFP |French presidential candidate for the right-wing Les Républicains party François Fillon at the Carrousel du Louvre in Paris on February 23, 2017.

Prosecutors announced Friday that an official probe had been opened into claims that presidential candidate François Fillon paid his wife hundreds of thousands of euros to serve as his parliamentary assistant, a job she may never have performed.

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French media investigations have found no evidence that Penelope Fillon did any government work. Fillon herself has also denied ever having worked as an aide to her husband.

"I have never been actually his assistant or anything like that,” she told the Telegraph in 2007.

Prosecutors said in a statement that the investigation will focus on whether Fillon embezzled public funds or misappropriated corporate assets.

The prosecutor’s decision to advance the case deals a serious blow to Fillon, whose former status as the favourite to win the April-May presidential elections has plummeted because of the scandal now known as “Penelopegate” after his British wife's first name.

Fillon has denied the allegations. Lawyers for the couple said they had no doubt that their clients would eventually be exonerated.

Jim Shields, the head of French studies at Aston University, told FRANCE 24 that Fillon is now facing a credibility crisis. “How can he campaign convincingly now, on a programme of economic austerity and belt-tightening, under the shadow of this investigation into lavish profiteering?”

And this problem won’t end with the campaign, Shields said. “Even if he were to be elected, how would he enact those cost-cutting policies?”

Jim Shieds of Aston University speaks to France 24

Rather inauspiciously, the prosecutor’s statement was issued late on Friday just as Fillon was about to take the stage at a Les Républicains campaign rally near Paris.

The latest development means that what began as a preliminary police probe into the allegations has now become an official inquiry. A magistrate has broad powers to investigate, including tapping phones and placing suspects under house arrest.

A judge will later decide whether to drop the case, place suspects under formal investigation or send the case to trial.

It remains unclear if the probe could be concluded before the first round of presidential elections are held on April 23, with a second round to follow on May 7.

Any criminal probe would be suspended if Fillon wins the presidency, however, as French heads of state are immune from prosecution.

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