Francois Fillon, former French prime minister, member of the Republicans political party and 2017 presidential election candidate of the French centre-right, arrives to make a declaration to the media at his campaign headquarters in Paris, France, March 1, 2017. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann
French presidential election candidate Francois Fillon prepares to declare his intention to keep running © Reuters

François Fillon has vowed to fight on as a candidate in France’s presidential election despite being told he would be placed under formal investigation over allegedly arranging fictitious jobs for his wife.

Mr Fillon once vowed to withdraw from the race if a formal judicial inquiry was launched. But after summoning senior figures from the centre-right Republicans for urgent consultations on his faltering campaign, Mr Fillon held a news conference to denounce the investigation, calling it a “political assassination” and a challenge to the democratic process.

“I will not give up,” he said. “I will not surrender. I will not withdraw.”

There were mounting signs Mr Fillon’s defiant stance was wearing thin within his own group of centre-right supporters, however.

Bruno Le Maire, a former minister who ran against Mr Fillon for the presidential nomination, resigned as Mr Fillon’s foreign policy spokesman because of the broken promise to withdraw from the race. Keeping one’s word “is essential to the credibility of politics”, Mr Le Maire said. Several other Republican MPs joined the criticism.

Mr Fillon, who won his party’s primary contest last year vowing to be a standard bearer for more ethical politics, was the early frontrunner in the presidential race. His campaign began to unravel in January after Le Canard Enchaîné, a satirical weekly, published allegations that his wife and children were paid a total of €880,000 for work they had not done.

Mr Fillon has since slipped in opinion polls, although he maintains a core level of support around 20 per cent, leaving him in touching distance of second place and a slot in the two-person run-off in the election’s second round.

The most recent surveys show the 62-year-old in third place, behind Emmanuel Macron, the 39-year-old centrist independent who has emerged as the race’s biggest surprise, and Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader who is expected to win the first round of the election on April 23.

Whoever meets Ms Le Pen in the May 7 second round is expected to win the presidency handily given that her Front National party has never shown the ability to secure more than one-third of the vote nationally. Still, Ms Le Pen’s solid performance in polls has bolstered her hopes and contributed to jitters among investors, given her anti-euro stance.

Last week, state prosecutors said they were handing over responsibility for the case to investigating magistrates, which suggested it would be put on a slow burner, a boost to his campaign. The judges, instead, moved swiftly.

He said the timing and speed of the judges’ decision, and leaking of testimony to the press, were evidence that “the rule of law has been systematically violated”.

Mr Le Maire’s criticism comes after weeks of senior Republican figures calling on Mr Fillon to make way for a “plan B” candidate; an increasing number of others have refused to campaign for him.

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