François Fillon under formal investigation for 'fake jobs offences'

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

The rightwing French presidential candidate François Fillon has been placed under formal investigation for misuse of public funds.

Fillon is alleged to have given his wife and children generous fake jobs funded by the taxpayer as parliamentary assistants.

He becomes the first major candidate to run for France’s highest office while under formal investigation for misusing state money.

Magistrates announced a string of charges on Tuesday, including misuse of public money, misuse of corporate assets and failing to declare his assets to a public watchdog.

The French weekly Le Canard Enchaîné broke the biggest political scandal of the French presidential campaign six weeks ago when it claimed Fillon paid his wife, Penelope, who is British, at least €680,000 of taxpayers’ money for a fake job as a parliamentary assistant spanning 15 years.

He was also suspected of giving two of his children similar fake jobs when he was a senator and they were still students.

It is not illegal to employ a family member as a parliamentary assistant in France, as long as the person is genuinely employed. Fillon has denied breaking the law.

The investigating judges’ move, which in the French justice system does not confirm wrongdoing but means investigators have serious grounds for pursuing the matter, increases the pressure on his troubled campaign.

Under French law, being put under formal investigation means there is “serious or consistent evidence” that points to probable involvement in a crime. It is a step toward a trial but investigations can be dropped without proceeding to court.

Fillon has refused to step down as a candidate. Polls show he could risk being knocked out in the first round vote in April, behind the far-right Front National’s Marine Le Pen, and the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron.

Fillon’s summons to appear before judges in their office was expected to take place on Wednesday, but his lawyer said it was brought forward by a day. Fillon refused to answer their questions, and instead made a declaration saying his family’s jobs were real and he had not broken the law.

The ongoing investigation into the Fillon family is wideranging. From May 2012 to December 2013, while employed full-time as a parliamentary assistant, Penelope Fillon was also paid €3,500 (£3,100) a month by a literary magazine owned by a billionaire French businessman friend, Marc Ladreit de Lacharriere. She allegedly only wrote a couple of book reviews in that time. The Fillons deny wrongdoing and said her employment at the magazine was real.

Penelope Fillon has been summoned to appear before judges at the end of March.

A one-time presidential favourite who once styled himself as a sleaze-free Mr Clean, Fillon had initially promised he would step down from the campaign if he was placed under formal investigation. He said during the primary race that prospective presidents needed to be irreproachable and that ministers under formal investigation could not serve in his government “while dogged by suspicion”.

When it became clear two weeks ago that judges intended to place him under formal investigation, he changed tactics. He has turned on judges and the justice system and attacked the workings of the French state with increasingly inflammatory language, calling for his supporters to rise up and “resist”. He said he was not at fault, but that the media, government and justice system were united in a plot against him.

It is proving difficult for Fillon to focus the spotlight on his manifesto plans to cut public spending and public sector jobs and streamline the French state while under suspicion of misusing public funds.

Le Parisien reported on Tuesday that his two children had transferred part of their salary for their alleged fake parliament jobs into their parents’ joint bank accounts. His daughter, Marie, told investigators that she had paid €33,000 into her parents’ account to pay them back part of her wedding costs after marrying at their 12th-century chateau. His son also transferred money to his parents, which Fillon’s lawyers said was to “pay back rent and pocket money”.

Fillon is also under scrutiny over his spending on clothes. Le Journal du Dimanche reported this week that a mystery benefactor had paid for his luxury bespoke suits. The ethics officer at the French parliament has opened an inquiry to establish whether or not he broke MPs’ rules by not declaring gifts of thousands of euros’ worth of luxury garments.

The paper claimed that since 2012 Fillon had received clothes worth nearly €48,500 made by the firm Arnys, a Parisian tailor favoured by the rich and famous. It reported that his suits had cost around €6,500 each. It also said €35,500 was paid to the shop in cash, but an order for two more suits in early February was paid for by cheque, signed by a “generous friend” who asked to remain anonymous.

Asked about the suits by a newspaper, Fillon acknowledged that a friend had given him two suits in February. “And so what?” He gave no further details on the provider of the gift and said the story was proof of a campaign to wreck his presidential bid.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the hard-left presidential candidate, said this week that it was incredible Fillon didn’t seem to understand why people found all this “abnormal”.

The French presidential campaign has been clouded by corruption issues. Le Pen has refused to attend a summons for questioning in a French investigation into whether her party misused more than €300,000 in European public funds to illegally pay her party workers from the European parliament kitty.

A preliminary inquiry was opened on Tuesday into whether Business France, the French state body that promotes business abroad, had failed to apply a correct tender process in organising the French Tech event in Las Vegas.

The event, at the Consumer Electronics Show, was attended by Macron when he was economy minister. But Michel Sapin, the current minister, said Macron himself was exempt of any suspicion.

“This is a dysfunction of Business France ... This does not concern Emmanuel Macron, his staff or the ministry,” Sapin said. The body was suspected of favouritism by handing the contract to the group Havas without a tender process.

The French anti-corruption association Anticor this week asked the country’s transparency watchdog to examine Macron’s declaration of assets when he became economy minister in 2014, saying it appeared to “lack coherence”.

Macron has insisted his declarations of assets was accurate and had already been checked by the watchdog.

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