The British wife of French conservative presidential candidate François Fillon has been charged in an inquiry into whether she was paid hundreds of thousands of euros for a fictitious job as his parliamentary assistant.
In the latest blow to her husband's faltering presidential bid, judicial sources said Penelope Fillon, 61, had been placed under formal investigation - the equivalent of being charged in the UK - for complicity and concealment in misappropriating public funds, concealed misuse of funds and concealed aggravated fraud.
Welsh-born Mrs Fillon and two of her children were paid for jobs as parliamentary assistants at a cost to taxpayers of about €800,000 (£700,000) over 20 years. Between May 2012 and December 2013, Mrs Fillon was also paid about €100,000 by a literary magazine owned by one of her husband’s friends.
Investigators suspect that she was paid to do nothing both in parliament and at the literary review. She previously told the Telegraph: "I have never been his assistant."
Mr Fillon, 63, was charged earlier this month for misappropriating public funds and misuse of funds. His former successor as MP, Marc Joulaud, has also been charged on the same counts.
Last week, the national financial prosecution service said that it had widened the investigation to include allegations of aggravated fraud and falsified documents. The documents were filed with the National Assembly.
After quizzing Mrs Fillon on Tuesday evening for "several hours", according to a judicial source, judges chose to add the serious charge of "concealed aggravated fraud" but not forgery.
When quizzed by judicial police, Mrs Fillon is said to have insisted she had prepared her husband's notes, wrote his memos and represented him at cultural events, as well as "opening mail" at the couple's home, a 12th century manor house in the Sarthe. Mr Fillon insisted she carried out "simple but essential tasks".
Judges reportedly want to know whether a note in which Mrs Fillon declares having a monthly job at the magazine, accounting for 14 hours along with her assistant post, was deliberately minimised to avoid breaking parliamentary rules on working hours.
The charges are the latest setback for Mr Fillon, whose campaign has been hit by a succession of corruption allegations since he won the Republicans’ primary election in November.
Once the frontrunner, the former prime minister has dropped to third place in polls for the first round of the election on April 23. In latest Ispsos Sopra Steria survey, he has 18 per cent of support from voters.
Marine Le Pen, the National Front leader, is on 25 per cent, just one point ahead of Emmanuel Macron, the 39-year-old centrist, who is expected to beat her in the run-off with 62 per cent, compared to her 38 points.
In recent days, Mr Fillon has denounced what he called a "plot" to kill off his presidential chances. He even accused François Hollande of running a "black office" of dirty tricks against him, a claim the Socialist president denies.
Mr Fillon's efforts to shake off sleaze allegations were thwarted over the weekend by news that he accepted watches worth more than €27,000 from businessmen while serving as prime minister and MP.
He confirmed that he had received a Swiss Scuderia Ventidue watch from Pablo Victor Dana, a Swiss-Italian financier, in 2009. At the time, he was prime minister in President Nicolas Sarkozy’s administration. He also accepted a watch from the Swiss watch brand Rebellion in 2013 when he was an MP for Paris.
The revelations came after Mr Fillon acknowledged that he had accepted three bespoke suits costing €13,000 from Robert Bourgi, a French lawyer, in February. Mr Fillon said last week that he had made a mistake and had given back the suits.
Adding to the turmoil, he is also reported to have accepted €45,000 to help Fouad Makhzoumi, a Lebanese billionaire, to meet influential public figures, including Russian president Vladimir Putin.
In the 1990s, Mr Makhzoumi was involved in a weapons deal with Britain that led to the resignation of Jonathan Aitken, the defence procurement minister, who was later jailed for perjury.
Mrs Fillon's lawyer, Pierre Cornut-Gentille, said last week: "Since Penelope Fillon's past activities on behalf of her husband were real, all the documents pertaining to this work are also unquestionably genuine."
If Mr Fillon clinches the French presidency, he can claim immunity from prosecution. His wife, however, cannot, which raises the prospect of the country's first British First Lady standing trial during her husband's five-year term - an event that observers say would make his position untenable.