PARIS (Reuters) - Right-wing presidential candidate Francois Fillon, hit by new damaging disclosures, accused the Socialist government on Wednesday of organising a campaign of media leaks about his financial affairs to neutralise him as a force in the election.
Still unable to reverse dismal approval ratings ahead of the first round of voting on April 23, Fillon went on the offensive to denounce weekly “organised leaks” which he said violated the confidentiality of the judicial investigation of his affairs.
“Who are organising these? State services ...,” he told franceinfo radio.
“And, oddly enough, the Socialist party, Mr. Macron and Mr. Hollande pounce on these pseudo-revelations,” he said, referring to election frontrunner Emmanuel Macron and Socialist President Francois Hollande.
The 63-year-old former prime minister was the leader in the race for the Elysee and seemed comfortably on course late last year to recover power for the centre-right The Republicans party after five years of Socialist rule.
That was until media reports in late January sent his ratings tumbling by disclosing he had paid his wife Penelope and two children hundreds of thousands of euros of public funds for work they may not have carried out.
He is now under formal investigation for misappropriation of public funds and a source close to the inquiry said on Tuesday that the investigation was being broadened to include suspicion that false documents had been presented to justify the employment of his family members.
A lawyer for Fillon’s British-born wife denied this allegation. “Since Penelope Fillon’s past activities on behalf of her husband were real, all the documents pertaining to this work are also unquestionably genuine,” lawyer Pierre Cornut-Gentille said in a statement.
Additionally, Le Canard enchaine - the newspaper that first disclosed the “Penelope-gate” scandal - reported on Wednesday that a Lebanese billionaire paid a company owned by Fillon $50,000 in 2015 to arrange introductions to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Total CEO Patrick Pouyanne. This was dismissed by the Kremlin as ‘fake news’.
“The truth is that the Left is incapable of winning this election and would only have a chance of succeeding if there was no adversary from the Right. That will not happen,” Fillon told francinfo radio.
Earlier, the Socialist party, whose candidate Benoit Hamon is faring even worse than Fillon and trails badly in fifth place in opinion polls, called on the conservative candidate to pull out.
“The list of actions for which you are being reproached is long, too long, much too long. And it is getting longer all the time,” the party said in a statement. “We are asking you expressly to withdraw from the presidential election.”
This was seized on by the Fillon camp as proof that the Socialists were behind attempts to discredit him.
Every time Fillon re-asserted himself in the public eye, new “pseudo-revelations” emerged to damage him, it said in a statement. “The chronology is too perfect to be mere chance.”
An Opinionway poll published on Wednesday showed Fillon still trailing in third place in the first round of voting - a position which will mean he is eliminated from the May 7 runoff between Macron and far right leader Marine Le Pen.
Polls see Macron, an independent centrist who was economy minister in an Hollande government for two years until August 2016, going on to beat Le Pen comfortably in the runoff by taking up to two thirds of the vote.
Fillon has consistently denied wrongdoing since the scandal broke in late January, though he has admitted errors of judgment, and fought off rebellions in his party’s ranks to maintain his bid for the Elysee.
But he is suffering from comparison now with the Socialist interior minister, Bruno le Roux.
Le Roux stepped down immediately on Tuesday over similar payments to members of his family within 24 hours of the media allegations surfacing - conduct which Fillon’s rivals are touting as honourable alongside Fillon’s intransigence.
Fillon also suddenly faced criticism from an influential member of his The Republicans party over his radical economic programme.
Speaking out against Fillon’s proposal to axe 500,000 public sector jobs, party grandee Francois Baroin said: “The state cannot force local authorities to reduce the workforce as proposed. I am telling Francois Fillon: ‘Watch out. Danger ahead!'”.
($1 = 0.9270 euros)
Reporting by Brian Love, Chine Labbe, Yann Le Guernigou, Michel Rose; Editing by Adrian Croft