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France's under-fire Fillon fights new fake jobs claims

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Conservative candidate Francois Fillon was on Wednesday fighting fresh claims he gave his family highly-paid fake jobs, a scandal threatening to derail his bid to become French president later this year.

[PARIS] Conservative candidate Francois Fillon was on Wednesday fighting fresh claims he gave his family highly-paid fake jobs, a scandal threatening to derail his bid to become French president later this year.

The Canard Enchaine newspaper alleged in its new edition that Mr Fillon obtained jobs as parliamentary aides for his children as well as his wife Penelope that paid a total of around one million euros (S$1.55 million).

The fresh claims came as investigators raided parliament and seized documents as part of a preliminary probe into a first set of charges on fake jobs the paper levelled against Mr Fillon last week.

Mr Fillon, 62, was the long-time frontrunner in the French presidential race and had been widely forecast to face far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the runoff in May, but the claims have hit his support.

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The Canard Enchaine alleged in its new issue out on Wednesday that it had unearthed proof that Penelope was paid as a parliamentary aide out of public funds available to MPs for an additional seven years, nicknaming her "Miss Moneypenny".

In another new allegation, the paper said two of the couple's five children, Marie and Charles, had earned 84,000 euros working as parliamentary assistants.

It said Mr Fillon employed law student Marie in 2005, just weeks after he was elected to the upper house of parliament. Two years later her brother took over.

The Canard Enchaine alleged last week that Welsh-born Penelope earned around 500,000 euros as a parliamentary aide from 1998 to 2007.

The new claims bring the total sum she allegedly made to more than 830,000 euros.

The paper said it could find no witnesses who could recall her working at parliament. In addition, Le Parisien newspaper reported she did not have an accreditation badge or an email account at the National Assembly.

Mr Fillon responded Tuesday by claiming he was the target of a sophisticated smear campaign.

"Such a large-scale and professional campaign has been mounted just to eliminate a candidate by other means than the democratic route," he told a business conference.

He said he was "calm" about the allegations "and now I await the end of this investigation".

Mr Fillon has argued that his wife has "always" worked for him, editing his speeches and meeting people in his constituency.

In addition to the parliamentary job, Penelope worked at a literary review owned by a billionaire friend of her husband's where she allegedly earned another 100,000 euros.

The couple were quizzed separately by anti-corruption investigators on Monday and sources said Mr Fillon's staff voluntarily handed over documents in the raid at parliament.

French lawmakers are entitled to employ family members, but attention has focused on what work was actually done.

The claims are damaging for Mr Fillon, a devout Catholic who was a surprise winner of the rightwing nomination by campaigning on his "clean" record.

In November's primary campaign, he said only he had the moral authority to slash 500,000 civil servants' jobs, cut welfare benefits and increase working hours.

But Mr Fillon has lost momentum since the allegations first emerged.

An opinion poll published on Sunday showed Ms Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigration and anti-EU National Front (FN), would score 25 per cent in the first round on April 23, with Mr Fillon slipping to second place on 21 per cent, virtually neck-and-neck with fast-rising centrist Emmanuel Macron.

Mr Fillon has insisted that his wife, also 62, has played a real, if discreet, role in his long political career.

He says that when he was an MP in Paris she carried out a heavy load of constituency work but was based at their 12th-century chateau near Le Mans in northern France.

Penelope, who has not spoken publicly about the accusations, has styled herself as a low-key political wife.

A trained lawyer, she told Britain's Sunday Telegraph newspaper after her husband became prime minister in 2007 that she preferred staying at home with her family to the bright lights of Paris.

"I'm just a country peasant, this is not my natural habitat," she joked.

In 2008, when her husband was prime minister, she told French TV her role amounted to "accompanying him (on some functions), and it is limited to that".

AFP

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