PARIS, March 22 (Reuters) - Francois Fillon’s campaign chief on Wednesday denounced what he called a daily “soap opera” of media leaks designed to hurt the conservative French candidate’s prospects of becoming president.
Bruno Retailleau, Fillon’s campaign coordinator, dismissed a further slew of media reports suggesting conflicts of financial and political interest, saying that Fillon’s lawyers would meet magistrates who are investigating the former prime minister.
“It’s clear that these are orchestrated leaks,” he told RTL radio. “We’re being dragged into a soap opera.”
Once the frontrunner, the 63-year-old conservative former prime minister has fallen to third place in polls and risks being eliminated in the first round of the presidential election a month from now in favour of a runoff between far-right leader Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Marcon, an independent centrist.
Retailleau spoke out after media reports said magistrates had broadened a judicial inquiry into hundreds of thousands of euros Fillon paid to his wife Penelope and children as well as his business consultancy activities.
“There’s a problem when there’s a conflict of interest ... but that is not the case with Francois Fillon,” said Retailleau, who said a drip-feed of sleaze allegations was derailing the pre-election competition between candidates.
A source close to the Fillon investigation said on Tuesday that the inquiry had been widened to include suspicion that false documents had been presented to justify the employment of Fillon family members.
Additionally, Le Canard enchaine, the newspaper which broke initial allegations that Fillon may have paid his family large sums of public money for minimal work, reported in its latest edition that a Lebanese billionaire paid a company owned by Fillon $50,000 in 2015 to arrange introductions to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Total TOTF.PA CEO Patrick Pouyanne.
No comment was immediately available from Total on that.
The favourite in opinion polls to win power on May 7 is now Macron, who is ardently pro-European and seeks to transcend traditional left-versus-right political cleavages. He is tipped to convincingly beat Le Pen, leader of the anti-EU, anti-immigrant National Front party.
Reporting by Brian Love; Editing by Richard Balmforth