France’s Fillon apologizes for expenses scandal but refuses to step aside
PARIS – Agence France-PresseFrench rightwing presidential candidate Francois Fillon on Feb. 6 apologized for hiring his wife as his parliamentary aide, admitting he made an “error” as he sought to draw a line under a damaging scandal but refused to step aside from the race.
Fillon’s bid has been in turmoil since it emerged that his British-born spouse was paid handsome sums for a suspected fake job as a parliamentary assistant.
Late Feb. 6, the candidate himself corrected a version first leaked in the press, revealing that the after-tax payments to his wife totaled more than 680,000 euros (730,000 dollars) over a total of 15 and a half years starting in 1986.
Fillon also used funds available to lawmakers to hire two of his children, paying them 84,000 euros ($91,000) pre-tax between 2005 and 2007.
“It was an error, I profoundly regret it and I apologize to the French people,” Fillon told a press conference while insisting he had done nothing illegal and that his wife Penelope’s earnings were justified.
The former prime minister, 62, said he had hired family members - as allowed in France - out of “trust” but now recognized that such policies “create distrust nowadays.”
Rejecting calls from some within his camp to step aside, he declared: “From tonight, I announce here that it’s a new campaign that’s starting.”
“I am a candidate for the presidency to win it,” he added.
Fillon’s press conference was seen as crucial to his chances after a flurry of allegations that have tarnished his sleaze-free image and triggered a preliminary probe into possible misuse of public funds.
France goes to the polls in April and May for a two-round presidential election.
Fillon, a devout Catholic who won the nomination of the Republicans party in November on a pledge to slash public spending, had been the frontrunner until two weeks ago.
Polls now show him possibly crashing out in the first round, likely leaving far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and rising star Emmanuel Macron, a centrist, to battle it out in May’s runoff vote.
Fillon again presented himself as the victim of dirty tricks on Monday, claiming “32 years of irreproachable ethics” in politics.
Addressing allegations that Penelope did not actually perform the duties for which she was paid, he said: “No one has the right to judge what a parliamentary assistant’s job consists of, except the MP himself.”