France's Fillon rejects new revelations

Gina DOGGETT, Véronique MARTINACHE
French presidential candidate Francois Fillon doggedly remains in the election race despite numerous accusations of financial impropriety

French presidential candidate Francois Fillon responded angrily Tuesday to a new report alleging that he put his wife on the public payroll in 1982, four years earlier than he claimed.

"I won't say another word about these things," the conservative contender said on French television, condemning "successive revelations, carefully disseminated by state services."

The revelation comes as French voters prepare to cast their first ballots in the two-stage presidential race on April 23.

Fillon, once the race's frontrunner and who denies any wrongdoing, was charged with abuse of public funds last month in a scandal that he has blamed on the outgoing Socialist government.

The 63-year-old is accused of giving fake jobs to his Welsh-born wife Penelope that earned her 680,000 euros ($725,000) in salary payments between 1986 and 2013.

Mediapart said late Monday that "Penelope Fillon in fact benefited from public funds from the first parliamentary mandate of her husband through contracts for studies or projects that he commissioned."

Fillon, first elected to represent the central Sarthe region in 1981, went on to become prime minister under president Nicolas Sarkozy from 2007 to 2012.

Other accusations of financial impropriety have piled up since the claims first broke in January, including that Fillon failed to declare an interest-free loan and that he accepted gifts of bespoke suits from a wealthy friend.

Fillon's lawyer Antonin Levy confirmed that investigators seized "contracts for studies" during a raid of the candidate's parliamentary offices in late January but said they were of "no interest" to the probe which he said reaches back only to 1997.

- Why now? lawyer asks -

"The real question is why the financial prosecutor, which has known of these documents for weeks, has not spoken of them and why this information is coming out two weeks before the first round" of the vote, Levy told AFP.

Fillon has seen his poll numbers decline around six points since the scandal broke, and is now sharing third place with far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.

Fillon was the surprise winner of the rightwing Republicans party's November primary after campaigning on his squeaky clean image.

His two leading rivals, Sarkozy and former prime minister Alain Juppe, were both tainted by legal woes.

Fillon has said that incumbent President Francois Hollande -- who decided in December not to run for re-election -- headed a "secret cabinet" responsible for the explosive fake jobs revelations.

With Fillon not expected to get past the first round, far-right leader Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron are seen as the frontrunners for the decisive runoff on May 7.