François Fillon's bid to become president of France has suffered another serious blow with more allegations of financial impropriety in today's Le Canard Enchaîné. Last week the investigative weekly, France's equivalent of Private Eye, claimed that Fillon's Welsh wife, Penelope, had been paid €500,000 over eight years for fictitious employment. In today's paper it is alleged she actually received €900,000 with further accusations that a decade ago Fillon hired two of his five children as parliamentary assistants while he was a senator, the pair of them earning 84,000 euros.
The former Prime Minister romped to victory in November's election to select a centre-right candidate to contest April's election, and much of Fillon's success was attributed to his transparency and honesty, the 62-year-old styling himself as a squeaky-clean antidote to his two biggest rivals, Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy.
It's not illegal under French law for politicians to hire members of their family as assistants, but they have to actually do some work, and the evidence appears to be mounting that Fillon's wife did little of that while pocketing the alleged €900,000. Their friends have now been dragged into the scandal with Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière, owner of the literary review La Revue des Deux Mondes, questioned about the 100,000 euros he allegedly paid to Mrs Fillon between 2012 and 2013 in return for just two reviews that ran to a few thousand words.
It's been a traumatic few days for the Fillons. On Monday the couple were interviewed by investigators, who have the power to extend the preliminary examination into a full judicial enquiry, and yesterday anti-corruption police raided his parliamentary offices in the search for evidence of his wife's work.
Fillon has vigorously defended himself and his wife in the last week, claiming he has the proof to show she worked as his assistant. Warned of the fresh allegations in today's Le Canard Enchaîné, Fillon came out fighting on Tuesday night, denouncing what he called a 'very professional slander... launched in an attempt to eliminate a candidate'. He added he was 'confident and serene' that he will be cleared of any wrongdoing. But might his image already have been tarnished beyond repair? According to a poll published by BFMTV yesterday, 76 percent of French people aren't convinced by his defence.
When the scandal broke last week Fillon said he would withdraw from the presidential race only if he was charged by prosecutors, but with these fresh allegations - and possibly more to follow in the weeks ahead - it's reported that the Republicans are discreetly discussing a Plan B. According to French television on Tuesday night, the 71-year-old Alain Juppé could be asked to stand, although many within the party believe his age would count against him in a campaign when his three main rivals - Marine Le Pen, Benoît Hamon and Emmanuel Macron - are under 50. The other name being mooted is François Baroin, 51, who served as Sarkozy's Finance Minister from 2011 to 2012, and is regarded as more centre-right than Fillon.
The one politician who has wasted no time in making capital out of the Fillon scandal is Le Pen, whose core campaign issues on immigration and Islam have been usurped by Fillon in recent months. Only last month the conservative magazine, Valeurs Actuelles, claimed that Jean-Yves Narquin, a member of the FN and the brother of Roselyne Bachelot, who served in Fillon's government, had recently sent Le Pen a two-page memo proposing the creation of a 'Fillon Unit', 'dedicated to unravelling all that Fillon has done and said over the course of his career'. Narquin also suggested launching a social media campaign, #LeVraiFillon [the real Fillon], the aim being to 'dismantle piece by piece the imposter who is Fillon'.
So perhaps it shouldn't have come as a surprise when, invited onto French TV at the weekend, Le Pen stated: 'The problem of Francois Fillon, it's the problem of confidence between the candidate and the French. The French must ask themselves: who is the real Fillon? Is it not the man who likes money and who could have manoeuvred for self-enrichment?'
The National Front is facing its own accusations of financial irregularity with the EU demanding the reimbursement of 300,000 euros they say was misused by the party. The deadline to pay back the money expired at midnight but Le Pen says she has no intention of complying with the demand, which she says is an Establishment vendetta concocted by Paris and Brussels. 'We trouble the European parliament, we are their political opponents, and they want our hide!' she said.