PARIS -- French presidential candidate Francois Fillon was given preliminary charges Tuesday in an investigation of taxpayer-funded jobs his wife and children received but allegedly never performed.
A top contender in a French presidential election never has reached such a critical step in a criminal investigation, yet Fillon has vowed to keep campaigning less than six weeks before the contest’s first round.
The charges further damage the image of the former prime minister, who used to tout his reputation for probity. And it further reduces his chances of winning the two-round April 23-May 7 presidential election in which he once was viewed as the leading contender.
Investigating judges filed the charges Tuesday, Celine Clement-Petremann of the national financial prosecutor’s office said. It was a surprise move -- Fillon had said the judges summoned him for Wednesday, but they apparently moved up the decision.
Fillon is accused of misusing public funds, receiving money from the misuse of public funds, complicity in misusing public funds and improper declaration of assets, among other charges, the prosecutor’s office said.
Under French law, preliminary charges mean that investigating magistrates have strong reason to suspect wrongdoing, but are seeking more time to investigate before deciding whether to send the case to trial.
Fillon has denied wrongdoing and vowed to continue his campaign.
“Yes, I employed my wife and the reality of her work is undeniable,” he told the judges according to a statement published by French media.
Fillon also said he “respects” the country’s judicial institutions and expects to “be treated as all citizens of our country.”
While it is legal in France for politicians to hire family members for legitimate jobs, the case against Fillon hinges on whether parliamentary positions he gave to his wife, Penelope, and two of their five children were real or fictitious.
Fillon’s family members insist they did the work for which they were generously paid.
Legally, Fillon’s case is about to enter a new phase. Politically, the conservative candidate intends to keep campaigning.
Fillon initially said he would quit the presidential race if he were charged.
“Those who don’t respect the laws of the Republic should not be allowed to run. There’s no point in talking about authority when one’s not beyond reproach,” he said while running for the conservative nomination.
However, Fillon later decided to maintain his candidacy, explaining he has the legitimate winner of the conservative primary and that his Republicans party had no plan B to replace him as the nominee.
“There is only one thing that exists in a democracy: It’s the people’s will. The French will choose,” he said during a news conference Monday.
The decision caused a deep rift within the party, prompting many to abandon his campaign.
Daniel Fasquelle, a conservative lawmaker supporting Fillon, told BFM television Tuesday that “justice will do its job, and now what’s important is to look at the (political) platform of the candidates.”
None of Fillon’s major rivals in the election immediately reacted to the news on Tuesday afternoon.
Once a front-runner of the presidential campaign, Fillon has seen his popularity drop following successive waves of unflattering revelations in French newspaper reports since January.
The weekly Le Canard Enchainé newspaper originally reported the allegations about Fillon’s employment of his relatives.
Two days ago, the Journal du Dimanche newspaper raised questions about expensive suits -- worth more than 48,000 euros ($52,000) over the past five years -- he received as a gift by an unidentified benefactor.
On Tuesday, the Le Parisien newspaper reported that Fillon’s children allegedly passed onto their father some of the money they earned while working as his aides.
Independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron has overtaken Fillon in pre-election polls, increasingly appearing as the new front-runner.
Another top contender also has caught the attention of judicial investigators. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen and some members of her National Front party are targeted in several ongoing investigations.
Last week, Le Pen refused to appear before judges in a case concerning her European parliamentary aides.
France’s presidential election is organized in two rounds. Only the two top contenders in the April 23 vote will be allowed to take part in the runoff on May 7.
Current polls show Macron and Le Pen are likely to reach the second round of the election. Fillon appears in a position to be eliminated in the first round.