François Fillon, the French presidential contender facing charges of paying his family €800,000 (€685,000) with parliamentary funds for "fake jobs", sparked incredulity and ridicule after claiming he didn't earn enough "to put money aside".
Mr Fillon, 63, once frontrunner and now facing elimination in the April 23 first-round vote after he was hit by sleaze, appeared briefly at a loss when asked in a breakfast television interview whether he ever “managed to put money aside”. Eventually, he responded by saying: “Personally, no."
The remark from a candidate who has promised to purge France's state sector and cut spending by €100 billion in five years sparked an internet storm of mockery given recent revelations about the public funds he is accused of misappropriating for his British wife Penelope and two of their children.
Mr and Mrs Fillon, whose main home is a sprawling 12-century manor house, face criminal charges over the allegedly illicit salaries.
“Unbelievable”, “out of touch with reality”, “poor François”, and, “this is the man who is promising to fix the nation's accounts,” said various Twitter comments.
"If with all that he makes, Fillon cannot put money aside, he will never be fit to balance the state budget," said one.
A satirical site called Le Gorafi opened a kitty “to enable François Fillon and his family to live in dignity". It even posted a spoof call from Emmaus, the national charity for the poor and homeless, to ask the French to dig deep to help him out. Some €685 was donated in a matter of hours. The site promised to donate the money to local charities in Mr Fillon's native Sarthe.
Mr Fillon, an MP for Paris, enjoys a pre-tax parliamentary income of €13,000 euros a month, including €5,000 euros of tax-free expenses. He declared €275,000 of overall income in 2016 including consultancy fees.
The Republicans candidate has also acknowledged receiving tens of thousands of euros in tax-free loans, including one from his daughter, and receiving gifts of watches from businessmen worth €27,000 euros and bespoke suits costing €13,000.
He declared his net worth at just over a million euros, including an estimated value of €750,000 for the family manor near Sablé-sur-Sarthe.
Currently polling to finish third in the first round of presidential elections, Mr Fillon predicts he can still make a last-minute surge to pip Emmanuel Macron, the independent centrist, to reach the May run-off against Marine Le Pen, the Front National candidate.
A poll over the weekend suggested he had narrowed the gap, on 19 per cent, with Ms Le Pen on 24 per cent and Mr Macron in the lead on 25 per cent.