Tuesday 21 November 2017

Fillon refuses to quit presidential race despite summons amid fake jobs probe

Conservative presidential candidate Francois Fillon at his campaign headquarters in Paris (Francois Mori/AP)
Conservative presidential candidate Francois Fillon at his campaign headquarters in Paris (Francois Mori/AP)

Conservative candidate Francois Fillon has refused to quit France's roller coaster presidential race despite receiving a summons to face charges of faking government-paid parliamentary jobs for his family, including his British wife.

Calling the investigation a "political assassination", Mr Fillon urged his supporters to "resist" and said he would leave it up to French voters to decide his fate.

Once a front-runner in the election race, Mr Fillon's chances have slipped since the probe was opened in January.

Cracks started to emerge in Mr Fillon's Republicans party hours after his announcement, with the resignation of a top ally.

But it is unclear whether Mr Fillon's decision will dramatically alter the electoral landscape, where the polls are dominated now by far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen and centrist independent candidate Emmanuel Macron.

The top two presidential vote-getters in France's April 23 ballot will head to a presidential run-off on May 7.

Mr Fillon held an emergency party meeting on Wednesday after receiving the legal summons and postponed a campaign stop, prompting media speculation that he could quit the race.

"I will not surrender," he told reporters at his headquarters later. "I will not withdraw."

Mr Fillon denied all allegations and said legal procedures were not properly followed in the probe, which he called unprecedented and unacceptable during a presidential election campaign.

He said he was summoned for questioning on March 15 "with the goal of being given preliminary charges".

The court summons was widely expected after the financial prosecutor's office pushed the case to a higher level on Friday, opening a formal judicial inquiry.

The alleged fake jobs that Mr Fillon gave his family are especially shocking to many voters because of his promise to cut government spending and his clean-cut image.

The investigative weekly Le Canard Enchaine reported that payments were made to his wife Penelope, from Abergavenny in Wales, and two of their five children that totalled more than one million euro (£850,000) over many years.

Mr Fillon initially said he would withdraw from the race if he was charged, but later said he was determined to let voters judge him instead of investigators.

"France is greater than my errors," he said on Wednesday.

After a preliminary investigation opened on January 25, the financial prosecutor's office decided on Friday to launch a formal judicial inquiry.

The list of potential charges now includes misappropriation of public funds, abuse of public funds and influence trafficking.

The investigation is going unusually quickly by French standards - one of the reasons that Mr Fillon claims it is politically driven to torpedo his candidacy.

The financial prosecutor's office was created in part to speed up the often-protracted French judicial process, and the justice minister insisted in a statement on Wednesday that investigating judges act independently of politics.

Ms Le Pen is also facing legal investigations involving European Parliament assistants and party financing, which she calls baseless and politically motivated.

The Republicans party has no clear alternative besides Mr Fillon.

The runner-up in the party's first-ever primary, centre-leaning Alain Juppe, has said he would not run in Mr Fillon's place.

Bruno Le Maire, who also lost to Mr Fillon in that primary, quit his position on Mr Fillon's campaign team on Wednesday, saying he could no longer back him because the candidate had back-pedalled on his promise to withdraw from the race if he was charged.

Mr Fillon has not been charged yet, but the prosecutors apparently expect he will be.

"I believe in keeping your word. It is vital to the credibility of politics," Mr Le Maire said.

But Bernard Debre of the Republicans rallied to Mr Fillon's side, dismissing questions about whether the party should replace its presidential candidate.

"Well, 50 days ahead of (the election)? And by whom?" Mr Debre asked.

Denise Mermut, an 18-year-old first-time voter walking near Mr Fillon's Paris campaign headquarters, was unequivocal.

"Fillon should quit politics. It's shameful," she said. "This is not normal, when you see what happens in other democratic countries in cases like this."

Ms Mermut plans to vote for far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.

Zach El Maataoui, a young voter who plans to cast a blank ballot in the presidential election, said he was not surprised.

"The guy just wants power. ... Politicians are all scam artists," he said.

AP

Meanwhile, centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, who has been riding high in the polls, had an egg thrown at his head in Paris.

While visiting the annual Paris farm fair on Wednesday, Mr Macron got hit on the back of his head with an egg. The yolk dripped over his face.

He said: "We propose solutions, we can talk about it.

"We can disagree and some might throw you eggs ... It's part of French political life. It always has been."

The candidate, who is making his first run for elected office, said he "deplored" the egg-throwing "because it doesn't elevate political dialogue".

Press Association

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