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Satirical weekly Le Canard Enchainé reported on Wednesday that Penelope Fillon had been paid thousands of euros as a parliamentary assistant for Fillon and his successor, but that it could find no proof of her having actually done any work.
Fillon, a conservative former prime minister, was the clear favourite to win the spring election, but an opinion survey on Friday suggested the report might be harming his popularity.
Fillon has denied any wrongdoing and says his wife’s jobs, which also included working for a cultural magazine, were not fake. Penelope Fillon has not yet responded to the allegations.
“Penelope has been by my side since the very beginning, discreetly and with dedication,” he said, choking back tears. “I built my career with her, and we have nothing to hide.”
“Just three months away from the presidential election, someone has constructed a scandal that came out of the blue,” he said. “They have tried to break me, through Penelope. I am afraid of nothing, I have a thick skin. But if you want to attack me, do it straight to my face. Leave my wife alone.”
“They tried to sink us, they tried to shoot us down, but here you are!” a defiant Fillon told the cheering, flag-waving crowd that party officials said numbered over 13,000 people.
Fillon’s image dented
Though it is legal in France for parliamentarians to employ family members, it is illegal to do so if no work has actually been done. Financial prosecutors have opened an investigation into suspected misuse of public funds.
The allegations have dented the wholesome image that Fillon, 62, a devout Catholic with 30 scandal-free years in politics, has sought to project. But supporters at the rally dismissed their impact, even while they were aware of the risks it will pose to their candidate.
“It is worrying, depressing and disappointing,” 70-year-old Fillon supporter Daniel told FRANCE 24. “It will not change my support for him, but I worry how voters across the country have reacted.”
Arriving with her husband, Penelope Fillon – who seldom attends political events and has in rare interviews presented herself as a housewife who stays away from politics – was greeted by top party officials and handed a bouquet of flowers. She was visibly moved when supporters responded to loudspeaker calls to cheer her.
In his speech to Sunday’s rally, Fillon, whose platform focused on hefty spending cuts has drawn criticism even from within his own party, said he would increase pensions of below 1,000 euros a month by over 300 euros. Payroll tax cuts would also benefit workers, he said.
Fillon has said he would drop out of the race if he was to be put under formal investigation. Judicial sources have said they cannot predict how long the inquiry will take.
Le Canard Enchainé said that Penelope Fillon was paid 600,000 euros ($642,000) for her jobs as parliamentary assistant and later at the magazine.