France's financial prosecutor office says it has launched a probe into claims that presidential hopeful Francois Fillon's wife was paid about 500,000 euros ($538,000) from parliamentary funds.
The prosecutor's office opened its investigation on suspected grounds of embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds just hours after Le Canard Enchaine newspaper reported that Penelope Fillon earned the money over eight years as a parliamentary aide to her husband during his tenure as a lawmaker.
It's not illegal for French legislators to hire their relatives as long as they are genuinely employed. Fillon, who has been championing transparency in his campaign, denied any wrongdoing.
French presidential frontrunner Francois Fillon criticized a campaign of "mudslinging" Wednesday as he came under pressure over allegations he employed his wife as a parliamentary aide for more than a decade.
The Canard Enchaine newspaper, which mixes satire and investigative reporting, alleged Tuesday that British-born Penelope Fillon had been paid from money available to her husband as a longstanding MP for the northern Sarthe region.
The newspaper alleged she earned around 500,000 euros ($538,000) in three separate periods, but said its reporters had not been able to find witnesses to her work.
"I see that the mudslinging season has started," Fillon told reporters during a campaign event in Bordeaux. "I won't comment because there is nothing to comment on and I would like to say that I am outraged by the disdain and misogyny in this article."
Fillon's spokesman Thierry Solere told AFP Tuesday that Penelope had worked for her husband, an arrangement he said was "common" among French MPs.
Hiring family members is not against the rules if the person is genuinely employed, but attention is focused on what work Penelope carried out for a salary of sometimes around 7,000 euros a month.
The silver-haired mother-of-five has kept a low profile in Fillon's nearly four-decade political career and was thought to have been focused on bringing up the couple's children at their chateau in the Sarthe region.
The 62-year-old candidate for the rightwing Republicans party has run a campaign promising radical economic reforms and the protection of French culture.
"It's up to him to explain himself," Socialist party presidential candidate Manuel Valls told France Inter radio on Wednesday. "You can't say you're the candidate of honesty and transparency and not be able to respond to these issues."
Other opponents highlighted how Fillon frequently rails against the bloated French state and wasteful public spending, which he plans to tackle by cutting 500,000 civil servants if elected.
Employing a family member is banned for MPs in Germany or in the European parliament, but is allowed in Britain where nearly one in four lawmakers has such an arrangement, public records show.
The French investigative website Mediapart reported in 2015 that one in five MPs had employed a family member at some point.
France's election in April and May is seen as highly unpredictable, with Fillon, far-right leader Marine Le Pen, 39-year-old centrist independent Emmanuel Macron and others in a large field of candidates.
Le Pen, whose party faces its own scandal about the use of public funds in the European parliament, declined to attack Fillon over the issue when asked on Wednesday morning.
The Socialist party is set to finalize its presidential candidate this Sunday, with former PM Valls up against leftist ex-education minister Benoit Hamon, who is seen as the frontrunner.
The two will go head-to-head in a televised debate later Wednesday.
Citing payslips, the Canard Enchaine said Penelope, nicknamed "Penny", was paid from 1998 to 2002 from funds for parliamentary assistants.
From 2002 to 2007, when Fillon took up a cabinet post under then president Jacques Chirac, she became an assistant to the man who carried out Fillon's parliamentary duties in his place, earning 6,900-7,900 euros per month.
The paper said Penelope was again paid "for at least six months" in 2012 when Fillon, then prime minister, left government.
The paper also claimed that Penelope was paid around 5,000 euros a month between May 2012 and December 2013 by a periodical, Revue des Deux Mondes, which is owned by a friend of Fillon.
Fillon told a television interviewer in November that his wife had brought up their first four children in the Sarthe while he was in Paris as an MP, but she had helped him with some of his political duties.
"She was very involved in the campaigns, handing out flyers and attending meetings with me," he said.
Penelope also told Britain's Sunday Telegraph in 2007 after her husband became prime minister that she was uneasy in Paris and preferred looking after her children and horses in the countryside.
"I'm just a country peasant, this is not my natural habitat," she joked.
The couple met when Fillon was 23 and married three years later as he entered parliament for the first time.In an unusual twist, Fillon's brother is married to Penelope's sister.
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