François Fillon's troubled election campaign suffered yet another blow when magistrates put him under formal investigation on suspicion of embezzling state funds, a first for a presidential candidate in France.
With less than six weeks to go until the first round of voting, Mr Fillon has been unable to draw a line under allegations that he paid his wife hundreds of thousands of euros of public money for little work.
Yesterday's decision put him one step closer to a trial and covered a wide range of grounds: suspicion of embezzling public funds, complicity in misappropriating funds, receiving the funds and not declaring assets fully, a judicial source said.
The former prime minister has refused to pull out of the presidential race and his camp and some party allies reacted defiantly to the magistrates' move yesterday, saying the campaign would go on.
"I trust and support François Fillon more than ever. No one will steal from the French the change of power they want," Eric Ciotti, a lawmaker from Mr Fillon's party, the Republicans, said on Twitter.
Mr Fillon (63) had already acknowledged he was likely to be placed under formal investigation. Even so, it is unprecedented in modern French election history and flies in the face of the image of probity that helped him win the centre-right ticket.
"His campaign was already poisoned by the scandal but now he's carrying a placard that reads 'Put under formal investigation' . . . it makes things even more complicated for him," Frederic Dabi of Ifop pollsters said.
Once the favourite to win, Mr Fillon now lags behind independent centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen in opinion polls. Only the two frontrunners go through to the head-to-head second-round vote on May 7.
Mr Fillon (left) has denied wrongdoing and said he was the victim of a "political assassination".
France's 10-year government bond yield gave up earlier falls to trade flat on the day at 1.10pc, while safe-haven German Bund yields fell from 14-month highs as the Mr Fillon news refocused market attention on French election risks.
Mr Fillon had been due to meet investigators today but, in a surprise move, the meeting was brought forward by 24 hours - a move requested by Mr Fillon's lawyer to spare him the full glare of the media.
Embezzlement of public funds can be punished by up to 10 years in jail and a €1m fine.
Under French law, being put under formal investigation means there is "serious or consistent evidence" that points to probable involvement of a suspect in a crime.
It is a step towards a trial, but many investigations have been dropped without going to court.
The announcement coincided with media revelations that Mr Fillon's children transferred back to him large amounts of taxpayers' money that he also paid them, and news of a parallel inquiry by parliament's ethics ombudsman into a €13,000 gift of two suits Mr Fillon accepted in February.
"We're cooked," a senior source close to Mr Fillon said before the news he had been placed under investigation.
"There's not a day goes by without more news. The suits saga is a disaster. It's something people can relate to. And now there's this story about reimbursements by the children."
Mr Fillon is not the only candidate facing judicial probes. Ms Le Pen, who is campaigning on a nationalist, anti-immigration platform, faces allegations she underpaid taxes on a mansion she and her father own.
Mr Fillon's allies point to the far-right leader's refusal to attend judges' hearings. 'Le Monde' newspaper reported yesterday that tax authorities were discussing with Ms Le Pen a possible deal that would see her pay €63,000 in back taxes.