France's Fillon banks on voter anger over 'stolen' election

Adam PLOWRIGHT
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French rightwing presidential candidate Francois Fillon has again denied allegations his wife was paid from public funds for a fake job 

French rightwing presidential candidate Francois Fillon has again denied allegations his wife was paid from public funds for a fake job 

French rightwing presidential candidate Francois Fillon said Wednesday he had the backing of angry voters after being charged with misusing public money, as scandals rather than policy continue to dominate the campaign.

"There's been a manipulation of events against me with one objective: to stop me being a candidate in the presidential election," Fillon told Radio Classique, again denying allegations his wife was paid from public funds for a fake job.

"There's a very strong movement going on. There's anger among voters on the right and in the centre who don't want to see their election stolen."

The comments came as new problems piled up for the presidential contenders, with almost daily revelations in the press and fresh legal investigations creating a cloud of suspicion overhanging the two-round vote in April and May.

Far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen confirmed to AFP on Tuesday that tax authorities were pursuing her and her father, former party leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, over the value of their family properties.

The anti-immigration, anti-EU leader faces several other investigations into campaign financing and the misuse of money at the European Parliament, where she has a seat.

And after Fillon was charged on Tuesday, the Paris prosecutors' office opened a preliminary enquiry into a state-financed event attended by centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron last year while he was a minister.

The probe into the organisation of a promotional evening for French hi-tech companies in Las Vegas does not target Macron personally, but could add to disillusionment among French voters with their political class.

"The campaign has been stolen," lawmaker Eric Ciotti from Fillon's Republicans party told BFM television on Wednesday as he defended the candidate, who has slipped to third place in opinion polls.

The disarray appears to have so far benefited 39-year-old Macron in particular, who is running as an independent for his new "En Marche" (On the Move) movement.

He and the anti-establishment Le Pen are shown in opinion polls to be the likely top two candidates in the first round on April 23.

Polls suggest Macron would beat Le Pen in the decisive runoff on May 7 -- but after Donald Trump's victory in the United States and Britain's vote to leave the European Union, analysts caution against bold predictions.

- Socialist infighting -

Political rather than legal difficulties continue to mount for the Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon.

The leftwinger has seen numerous party heavyweights defect and back Macron, who served in the Socialist government of President Francois Hollande until August last year.

He has also failed to clinch an alliance with Communist-backed Jean-Luc Melenchon who risks splitting the vote on the left.

Manuel Valls, Socialist prime minister until December, announced on Tuesday that he would not back Hamon and his left-wing tax-and-spend programme.

"I won't be backing anyone and I won't take lessons on responsibility or loyalty from anyone," he told a meeting of Socialist lawmakers and party officials at parliament, sources told AFP.

"I'm loyal to my political family, I'm not leaving the Socialist party, but to give my backing would contradict all my political commitments and impossible to explain," the pro-business moderniser added.

Media reports this week -- which Valls denied -- said he was preparing to come out in favour of Macron.