France's Fillon battles to bury scandals before date with judges

Clare BYRNE
A newspaper report claims an anonymous benefactor has bought 48,500 euros' worth of clothes for Francois Fillon since 2012

French presidential candidate Francois Fillon on Monday defended his radical economic plan and proposed a measure to clean up politics, two days before a key meeting with judges investigating him over a fake jobs scandal.

The struggling conservative, who was hit by new allegations of financial impropriety over the weekend, said that if elected in May, he would hold his government to the highest ethical and performance standards.

To "prevent conflicts of interest and (ensure) the proper use of public funds", ministers would be required to sign a code of conduct, the Republicans candidate said.

Underperforming members in his whittled-down cabinet of 15 ministers would be shown the door, he said at a press conference.

On the economic front, he reiterated his plans to slash public spending by getting civil servants to work 39 hours a week, up from 35 currently, and increasing the minimum retirement age to 65 from 62.

Vowing to move quickly, he promised: "Within the first weeks, everyone in France will see that something unprecedented is happening."

But his remarks were yet again overshadowed by persistent questions about his probity.

On Sunday, a leading newspaper reported that a mystery benefactor had bought the former prime minister luxury suits worth thousands of euros.

The report in the Journal du Dimanche came as Fillon prepares to appear before judges on Wednesday to face possible charges over payments totalling hundreds of thousands of euros to his wife for a suspected fake job as a parliamentary assistant.

Voter surveys show Fillon, seen as the frontrunner in the presidential race before the scandal broke, trailing in third behind centrist upstart Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

Macron, 39, would win the two-stage election on April 23 and May 7 if held today, the polls show, but analysts have warned against making firm forecasts in an election shaping up as the most unpredictable in France's post-war history.

The 63-year-old Fillon, who fended off intense pressure from Republican moderates to step aside over the fake job allegations, condemned the latest revelations as part of a media "witch hunt".

"I am the target of so many attacks that I can't consider them anything other than a sort of witch hunt," he told Europe 1 radio on Monday.

"What could explain that hundreds of journalists, at the very least dozens, go through my garbage to find out about my suits. Tomorrow it will be my shirts and then why not my underpants as well?"

- 'So what?' -

The Journal du Dimanche claimed that Fillon received gifts of bespoke suits and other clothing worth a total of 48,500 euros ($51,800) since 2012 from Arnys -- Paris tailor to the jet set.

Of that sum, 35,500 euros was paid in cash, with the remainder paid by cheque, the report said.

"I paid at the request of Francois Fillon," the JDD quoted the signatory of the cheque as saying.

In France, lawmakers are required to declare all donations or gifts worth over 150 euros, but few comply with the rule.

Fillon, who was first elected to parliament in 1981, has admitted that a "friend" paid for two suits, saying: "So what?"

On Monday, he denied that the clothing he received came to 48,500 euros, telling Europe 1 radio the figure was "not correct".

The revelations come in a key week for the Republicans candidate, who won the rightwing nomination by campaigning as a sleaze-free alternative in a political landscape riven with scandal.

On Wednesday, he faces possible charges over using public funds to pay his wife Penelope about 700,000 euros as a parliamentary assistant over some 15 years.

Penelope is suspected of doing little to no work for the salary.

The couple insist that she played a key role in managing affairs in his central Sarthe constituency.