Fillon's problems mount as probe to be pursued
Conservative presidential candidate François Fillon's woes piled up yesterday when France's financial prosecutor chose to pursue a probe into the fake-work scandal that has dogged him, and as far-right rival Marine Le Pen gained in the polls.
Two polls showed Mr Fillon, once the front-runner, being knocked out in the first round of the two-part vote.
Prosecutor Eliane Houlette said after receiving a police report that she was keeping open an investigation into the Fillon jobs scandal.
Mr Fillon's status as favourite to win the presidency in May has evaporated in the past three weeks over whether or not his wife did real work for hundreds of thousands of euros of taxpayers' money when she was paid as his assistant.
The issue has also sown concern among investors that the anti-Europe, anti-euro Ms Le Pen, of the Front National, could win the presidency. She has moved up in the polls but remains well behind.
"It is my duty to affirm that the numerous elements collected (by investigators) do not, at this stage, permit the case to be dropped," Ms Houlette said after receiving an initial report on whether public funds were misused.
Ms Houlette did not announce further steps in a case becoming known as 'Penelopegate' after Mr Fillon's British wife.
Among Ms Houlette's choices are dropping the case, taking it further by appointing an investigating magistrate, or sending it straight to trial.
A source close to the case said it now looked unlikely that the financial prosecution service, set up under President Francois Hollande in 2013, would drop the case.
Mr Fillon's camp has challenged the legitimacy of the probe. The candidate reiterated his criticism of the prosecutor's conduct in comments to the conservative newspaper 'Le Figaro' yesterday, saying she had added to the "media circus" surrounding the affair.
He also told 'Le Figaro' that he remained as determined as ever to continue the election campaign he began in November after winning a primary contest.
Mr Fillon (62) has said he would step down as The Republicans' candidate if he were put under formal investigation - a step that would be the decision of an investigating magistrate, but which could take months or years.
He has so far faced down a rebellion among conservative lawmakers who want to appoint a new candidate, but there are still rumblings about his unsuitability.
Bruno Le Maire, Mr Fillon's adviser on international affairs, told Reuters that Mr Fillon was the mainstream right's only chance.