Fillon tanks in polls as Penelope-gate throws French election wide open
The popularity of François Fillon, the conservative until now tipped to be France's next president, has tumbled after press allegations that his British wife was paid half-a-million euro for a fake job as his parliamentary assistant.
The fresh poll came as Alain Juppé, the former prime minister Mr Fillon beat in party primaries for their Republicans party in November, ruled out replacing him should he step down over the scandal.
An Oxoda poll conducted after Wednesday's report in 'Le Canard Enchainé' suggested Mr Fillon has lost 16 points in approval ratings since November, when he was picked to run for the Republicans, France's main centre-right party, in presidential elections on April 23 and May 7.
While a majority of French, some 54pc, approved of Mr Fillon in November, the poll conducted on Thursday suggested his approval ratings had slumped to 38pc.
According to 'Le Canard', Penelope Fillon was paid €500,000 in public money as her husband's parliamentary assistant, but there is no evidence she did any work. She was, it went on, paid a further €100,000 for a sinecure publishing job provided by a billionaire friend of her husband's.
That prompted financial prosecutors to open a preliminary investigation on Thursday, though Mr Fillon and his wife will be placed under formal judicial investigation or face charges only if prosecutors find there is substance to the claims.
With "Penelope-gate" snowballing, Mr Fillon took to prime time television news on Thursday night to insist the work she did over more than eight years from 1997 was "real, legal and completely transparent".
Describing Mrs Fillon's work at his constituency in western France, he said she had "corrected speeches, met important visitors . . . and chaired meetings".
He pledged to keep campaigning unless charged.
"Only one thing would prevent me from being a candidate: it's if my honour was harmed, if I were placed under formal investigation by a judge," he told French TV station TF1. Even if that were to happen, his rival in party primaries, Mr Juppé, yesterday said he "definitively" ruled out replacing him in the presidential race.
Legal experts suggested Mr Fillon was highly unlikely to be formally investigated in the short term.
"I don't imagine for a second that this case will be resolved before the presidential election," Eric Alt, vice-president of Anticor, an anti-corruption group, told the 'Huffington Post'.
"As no investigating magistrate has been appointed, nobody has the power to place him under formal investigation."
Before the scandal broke, polls suggested that far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and Mr Fillon were ahead in the presidential race, with both commanding more than 25pc support in the first round.
In third place was maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron, who has gained ground and his support now stands at almost 20pc.
However, the new poll suggests the allegations could damage Mr Fillon's presidential prospects as the candidate of rigour and integrity.