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France's Fillon under formal investigation for fraud ahead of election

Updated: 2017-03-15 09:19

France's Fillon under formal investigation for fraud ahead of election

Francois Fillon the Republicans party candidate in the French presidential elections, speaks at the National Federation of Hunters General Assembly in Paris, France, March 14, 2017. [Photo/Agencies]

PARIS - Francois Fillon's troubled election campaign suffered yet another blow on Tuesday when magistrates put him under formal investigation on suspicion of embezzling state funds, a first for a presidential candidate in France.

With less than six weeks to go until the first round of voting, Fillon has been unable to draw a line under allegations that he paid his wife hundreds of thousands of euros of public money for little work.

Tuesday's decision put him one step closer to a trial and covered a wide range of grounds: suspicion of embezzling public funds, complicity in misappropriating funds, receiving the funds and not declaring assets fully, a judicial source said.

The former prime minister has refused to pull out of the presidential race and on Tuesday his camp and some party allies reacted defiantly to the magistrates' move, saying the campaign would go on.

"I trust and support Francois Fillon more than ever. No one will steal from the French the change of power they want," Eric Ciotti, a lawmaker from Fillon's party, The Republicans, said on Twitter.

Fillon, 63, had already acknowledged he was likely to be placed under formal investigation. Even so, it is unprecedented in modern French election history and flies in the face of the image of probity that helped him win the centre-right ticket.

"His campaign was already poisoned by the scandal but now he's carrying a placard that reads 'Put under formal investigation' ... it makes things even more complicated for him," said Frederic Dabi of Ifop pollsters.

Once the favourite to win the election, Fillon now lags behind independent centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen in opinion polls. Only the two frontrunners go through to the head-to-head second round vote on May 7.

Fillon has denied wrongdoing and said he is the victim of a "political assassination".

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