French presidential hopeful Francois Fillon on Sunday hit back at allegations he paid his wife 500,000 euros ($540,000) for a suspected fake job, telling a packed rally his critics should “leave my wife out” of the election.
“If someone wants to attack me they should attack me straight on, but leave my wife out of this political debate,” Fillon, a conservative who has been leading the presidential race so far, told thousands of cheering supporters, watched by his Welsh-born wife Penelope.
“I want to tell Penelope that I love her and that I will never forgive those who tried to throw us to the wolves,” he told the crowd, to chants of “Penelope, Penelope!”
Fillon has been scrambling to contain the damage to his campaign caused by allegations that his wife collected half a million euros ($534,000) as his parliamentary aide and then that of his successor over a period of eight years — for little to no work.
Investigators have launched a preliminary probe into misuse of public funds.
They are also looking into payments she received from a magazine owned by a friend of Fillon.
Fillon has called the revelations in Le Canard Enchaine investigative weekly a “plot” and says his wife’s job was real.
“They’re trying to take me down, through Penelope,” he told the crowd of mostly older, white supporters in a Paris hall, who interrupted his speech periodically with shouts of “Fillon, President!”
Fillon won the conservative Republicans’ nomination last November with promises to slash public spending and restore morality in politics.
On Sunday, he was hit by fresh allegations, with Mediapart website and the Journal du Dimanche newspaper claiming he had also paid himself from public funds intended for assistants in the French upper house.
An Odoxa poll on Friday showed his approval ratings falling four points to 38 percent since the scandal broke.