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* Police search Senate over reports of fake jobs for wife
* Fillon under fire from his Republicans political camp
* Ex-PM says moves afoot to destroy him, "steal election"
* Dragged down to level with centrist rival Macron -poll
By Brian Love
Feb 3 Francois Fillon clung to his place as
France's conservative presidential candidate on Friday amid
worsening opinion poll ratings and speculation about his ability
to carry on after accusations his wife got public money for work
she did not do.
Police carried out searches at the Senate in connection with
the fake job allegations on Friday, looking in particular for
information concerning payments there to Charles and Marie, two
of Fillon's children, the public prosecutor said.
Senate President Gerard Larcher, named by some politicians
as a desirable substitute if Fillon bowed out, took to Twitter
to deny a report in news publication L'Obs that he was about to
withdraw his support for the current presidential contender.
People in his own camp discussed other options as a second
poll in two days showed a large majority of voters believed the
former prime minister should pull out of the election, a
two-round contest that opens on April 23.
The 62-year-old vowed at a Thursday night rally in northeast
France to fight what he called a "demolition exercise", telling
a crowd of around 1,000: "People are not seeking justice. They
are seeking to destroy me, and beyond me to destroy the Right
and steal an election."
Until the scandal over payments to his wife and two of his
children surfaced last week, Fillon was enjoying what looked
like a nearly unassailable lead over other presidential
contenders, ahead of far-right National Front leader Marine Le
Pen and independent centrist Emmanuel Macron.
An Odoxa poll for franceinfo radio showed 61 percent believe
Fillon is now wrong to persevere in his presidential bid.
Sniping from his own right-wing political camp continued,
primarily from politicians connected to party grandees he beat
to win the presidential ticket of The Republicans party.
"A million euros is no small sum," said Rachida Dati, who
was justice minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, president from 2007
to 2012 but third-place loser in the contest that handed Fillon
the Republicans presidential ticket.
She dismissed two other names cited as possible replacements
if Fillon pulled out - Alain Juppe and Sarkozy.
They were both also-rans in the primary that Fillon won last
November. But Juppe has the handicap of a court conviction more
than 10 years ago for misusing political funds to finance
phantom jobs for political friends. Sarkozy is being pursued by
investigators on suspicion of illicit campaign financing.
Fillon has denied any wrongdoing since Le Canard enchaine, a
muckraking satirical weekly, last week accused him of paying his
British wife, Penelope, hundreds of thousands of euros for work
as an assistant that she appeared not to have done.
That scandal, subject of an official inquiry, has broadened
since then with further reports by the newspaper of payments 10
years ago to children Marie and Charles, who are now lawyers in
their 30s. On Thursday, a prime-time TV programme broadcast a
decade-old interview in which Fillon's wife appeared to say she
had no role as an employed assistant.
"I have never actually been his assistant or anything like
that. I don't deal with his communication," she said in that
interview with Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper.
Fillon had presented himself as a clean-cut, clean-living
candidate. The Welsh-born Penelope has long shunned the
limelight for what, in rare comments to the media, she calls a
country life as mother of four at the family manor an hour or
two by car west of Paris.
Opinion polls have shown Fillon stumbling to level with
rival Macron. Whichever of the two makes it to the May 7 runoff
round is expected to face Le Pen, and beat her convincingly.
Should he bow out, other names that politicians have shared
with journalists as replacement contenders are Senate President
Larcher, publicly proposed by right-winger Christine Boutin on
Thursday, and ex-ministers Xavier Bertrand and Francois Baroin.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)