France opinion poll shows 65 percent want candidate Fillon to withdraw

An opinion poll in France has indicated 65 percent of respondents want Francois Fillon to withdraw from the presidential election. But he has changed his mind and said he will stay in the race, come what may.

In the poll for Sunday newspaper JDD, a poll, based on 1,004 interviews with French voters, showed 65 percent of respondents wanted conservative candidate Francois Fillon to withdraw from April's presidential elections. 

On Friday, Fillon said he would stay in the race come what may. Previously he had said he would withdraw if he was put under formal investigation concerning payments made to his wife, Penelope, for work she may not have done. 

Last week a financial prosecutor investigating the nearly million euros paid to Fillon's wife and children from public funds said the evidence gathered meant the case could not be dropped.

"The investigations will continue with strict respect for the rules governing the code of criminal procedure," the statement from the National Financial Office (PNF) said on Thursday.

The investigation by the PNF is expected to continue for some time. After a preliminary investigation, prosecutors will decide on a follow up. If charges persist, either a direct summons will be issued or investigating judges will be entrusted with the case. In the three years the PNF has been active, it has preferred direct summons. 

No surrender

Fillon told "Le Figaro" newspaper that it would be "scandalous" to deprive the right and center of a candidate. "The closer we get to the presidential election’s date, the more scandalous it would be to deprive the right and the center of a candidate," Fillon said in the interview. "My decision is clear: I am running and I’ll go until victory."

In the Ifop poll, members of Fillon's "Republicains" party were more supportive. There was a rise of six points, to 70 percent, for those who said they wanted him to stay in the race for the presidency. 

In the major poll in February on voter intentions, the Ipsos-Sopra Steria survey of 15,874 people published by "Le Monde" newspaper and conducted between February 7 and February 12, Fillon was trailing Emmanuel Macron, a former banker and economy minister in the socialist government.

The poll gave Macron, who heads his own "En Marche" political group, 23 percent support over 18.5 percent for Fillon. Far right candidate Marine le Pen of the National Front (FN) leads polling for the first round on April 23 with 26 percent but all surveys indicate she would lose in the second round run-off two weeks later in May, whoever she stands against. 

Marine le Pen, candidate of the far right National Front (FN)

Media questioning payments

Le Pen is also facing questions concerning payments she made at the European Parliament. European anti-fraud investigators (OLAF) have been reported by investigative website "Mediapart" and weekly "Marianne" as saying that Le Pen had admitted using parliamentary funds to pay her bodyguard, Thierry Légier, a total of 41,554 euros ($44,110) between October and December 2011 by falsely claiming he was an EU parliamentary assistant. However, le Pen denied the reports, saying on radio "France Bleu Besancon" that she "never admitted such a thing to investigators."

Fillon has blamed the media for his problems. The satirical weekly "Le Canard enchainé" has been at the forefront in publishing  information about the alleged payments made to Penelope Fillon and Fillon's children while they were student lawyers. "This campaign against me is defamatory," he said earlier this month.

A campaign meeting for Fillon on Friday in Tourcoing, close to the border with Belgium, was held behind closed doors after protesters shouted slogans and banged on pots and pans.

What you need to know about Francois Fillon and "Penelopegate"

Frontrunner no more

Many expected Francois Fillon to be a shoo-in for the presidency. The former French prime minister easily won the conservative primary with 67 percent of the vote. But then Penelopegate hit. Weekly newspaper Canard Enchaine reported that Fillon's wife Penelope and two of his children had received close to one million euros in salaries from Fillon, paid by the state. Fillon's popularity tumbled.

What you need to know about Francois Fillon and "Penelopegate"

Working for her husband?

It is not illegal in France to hire family members as parliamentary assistants - provided they have real jobs. Fillon's wife was paid 830,000 euros ($900,000) as a parliamentary assistant for 15 years, working (or - as some have suggested - "working") for Fillon and his replacement in parliament. Police are currently investigating whether Penelope provided services for the salary she received.

What you need to know about Francois Fillon and "Penelopegate"

Keeping it in the family

Reporters also revealed that Fillon paid his two oldest children 84,000 euros for working as assistants between 2005 and 2007. Fillon argued that he had hired Marie and Charles Fillon for their legal expertise - though the two were still in law school when they had jobs with their father.

What you need to know about Francois Fillon and "Penelopegate"

More accusations

Penelope was also employed at an art magazine from May 2012 to December 2013, where she was paid roughly 5,000 euros a month. The owner of the magazine had previously been recommended for France's highest honor, the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor, by then-prime minister Francois Fillon. Fillon has said that these two facts were unrelated.

What you need to know about Francois Fillon and "Penelopegate"

A smear campaign?

Fillon has repeatedly denied charges that he used "fake jobs" to enrich his family. He has said that he employed his wife and children because he trusted them and accused the media of running a smear campaign against him. Nevertheless, Penelopegate has severely damaged the campaign of the 63-year old, who has sold himself to French voters as an honest family man keen on cutting public spending.

What you need to know about Francois Fillon and "Penelopegate"

Certainly not a first

The accusations against Fillon are hardly the first of their kind in France. Ex-President Jacques Chirac was found guilty in 2011 of employing party members in "fake jobs" as mayor of Paris. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy is being investigated for illegal campaign financing, and presidential candidate Marine Le Pen is suspected of paying officials in her far-right party with EU funds.

jm/bw (Reuters, AFP)