Conservative candidate François Fillon, once the front-runner in France's presidential race, is facing a political maelstrom after first his wife and then his children became targets in an embezzlement probe into paid — but allegedly fake — political jobs.
The decision Thursday by the national prosecutor's office to expand its investigation into Penelope Fillon's work as a parliamentary aide to her husband to include a son and a daughter added a whole new layer of worry for both Fillon and his party, which is watching its chances of regaining power dwindle.
French national financial prosecutors have been investigating Penelope Fillon's work, seeking to determine whether there are grounds to suspect embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds. The Canard Enchaine weekly reported Wednesday that she made €830,000 ($1,160,000 Cdn) over 15 years.
Allegations that Fillon's family used his political connections for personal enrichment 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 stings because Fillon has promised to slash public sector jobs and make the French work harder and longer.
The hit to Fillon's prospects of winning France's two-round presidential election in April and May has thrown wide open the race that had been expected to be between him and far-right National Front Leader Marine Le Pen.
With Fillon weakened and the unpopular Socialist President François Hollande having abandoned hopes of running for a second five-year term, Le Pen and independent maverick Emmanuel Macron are making hay ahead of the April 23 first-round vote.
A possible run-off vote between Le Pen and Macros on May 7 would augur a total upset of France's political landscape, for it would not include the traditional right, represented by Fillon, nor the Socialist left, which fell into disarray under Hollande.
Heckled on campaign trail
An angry Fillon addressed a rally Thursday night in Charleville-Mezieres, in northeast France, calling the allegations attacks on him and the right.
"I'm not a dupe. It's not justice that they're after — it's to break me," he said, insisting "there is nothing illegal."
His eyes appeared teary as he called on the crowd to support him.
"My friends, I ask you to help me resist," he said.
Earlier in the day, Fillon was heckled by a young man who yelled "Fillon, thief! Resign!" during a stop at a daycare centre.
The Canard Enchaine reported that Fillon hired his children as parliamentary aides when he was a French senator from 2005 to 2007, and they earned €84,000 ($118,000 Cdn) in total.
Fillon has confirmed 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 say. According to Le Canard Enchaine, they drew paycheques not for assignments but for two full-time jobs.