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Fillon stays in presidential race despite facing charges over 'fake jobs'

Guy Jackson, AFP | Fillon speaks during a campaign rally in Paris on January 29.

French presidential candidate François Fillon vowed Wednesday not to withdraw from the presidential race, despite possibly facing charges over claims that he arranged to have his family paid handsomely for jobs they never performed.

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"I will not withdraw," he told reporters at his campaign headquarters on Wednesday, adding that he had been the target of a "political assassination".

"From the start, I have not been treated like anyone else facing the justice system," Fillon said during a highly anticipated news conference, at which many observers had expected him to withdraw from the race.

"It's not just me they are killing, but the French presidential election," he said.

In the wake of Fillon’s defiant speech Wednesday, his European and international affairs advisor quit the embattled conservative’s campaign. Bruno Le Maire had finished fifth in the conservative primary’s first round last November, immediately calling on his supporters to back Fillon for the nomination.

“On January 26, François Fillon told the French people that [if charged], he would withdraw his candidacy to the presidency of the French Republic. I believe in respecting one’s word,” Le Maire said in a statement Wednesday afternoon, adding it was key to political credibility and necessary in order to lead France’s recovery efforts. “In keeping with my principles, I therefore resign from my duties,” he said.

Penelopegate

French media reported that Fillon's Welsh-born wife Penelope was paid almost €1 million to serve as his parliamentary assistant, a job she may never have performed. Further investigations found no evidence that she did any government work and Fillon herself has 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.

Two of Fillon's five children were also employed as parliamentary assistants while he was a senator for an additional €84,000.

French prosecutors announced on Friday that they had opened an official investigation into the allegations, dealing a fresh blow to his presidential ambitions.

Conservative Fillon of Les Républicains party was once the front-runner for the April-May election but his ratings have plummeted over the jobs scandal, dubbed "Penelopegate", and he now lags behind both far-right leader Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron.

Fillon is scheduled to meet with investigating magistrates on March 15, when he will be placed under formal investigation – a legal status similar to being charged. He has denied the allegations against him and reiterated that his family had indeed "assisted" him throughout his political career.

Jim Shields, the head of French studies at Aston University, told FRANCE 24 last week that the new investigation has created a credibility crisis for Fillon.

“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?” 

It remains unclear if the investigation can 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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