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France’s Fillon and his wife questioned in ‘fake work’ probe

File photo: French politician Francois Fillon, member of the conservative Les Republicains political party and his wife Penelope attend a final rally ahead of the first round of vote to choose the conservative candidate for France's presidential election

French presidential candidate Francois Fillon and his wife are being questioned by investigators as part of a probe into allegations that Penelope Fillon was paid for fake jobs, a source close to the case said on Monday.

Francois Fillon, who has denied any wrongdoing, had said after the probe was opened last week that he wanted to be heard by the investigators. Such questioning is a normal step in a preliminary probe and not a sign of culpability.

The financial prosecutor’s office, Fillon‘s lawyer and his staff were not immediately available for comment on the case, which is sapping the popularity of the former conservative prime minister and could shake up the April-May presidential contest.

Satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine reported last week that Penelope Fillon had been paid 500,000 euros ($534,000)from state funds as a parliamentary assistant to her husband and his successor but that it could find no proof of her having actually done any work.

The source close to the case said businessman Marc Ladreit de Lacharriere was also questioned because his Fimalac holding company owns the literary review La Revue des Deux Mondes, which Le Canard Enchaine said paid Penelope Fillon another 100,000 euros for very little work.

Fillon, until now the clear favourite to win the two-round election, has said his wife’s work was real, and says he is the victim of a smear campaign. He is facing an increasingly tight race against centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right party leader Marine Le Pen.

An investigation was launched last week into the affair, which has knocked Fillon‘s presidential campaign off course and dented the wholesome image the devout Catholic has cultivated.

The probe so far is only a preliminary investigation, the first step in the judicial process. The conservative former prime minister has said he would abandon his presidential bid if placed under formal criminal investigation.

A Fimalac spokeswoman declined to comment on the questioning of Ladreit de Lacharriere. There was no immediate response to an attempt to reach him by email.

An Internet petition saying “Mme Fillon give us back the 500,000 euros” said on Monday afternoon 208,000 people had signed so far.

If police find fake work allegations stand up, prosecutors can seek a formal inquiry by an investigating magistrate, which would take months to reach a conclusion.

However, prosecutors could also leapfrog that step and go directly to trial, the source close to the case said.

Should Fillon drop his presidential bid, time is running out for the conservative Republicans party to choose another candidate.

The party only has about two weeks to organise a new primary before it would be too late, as a March 22 deadline approaches for all candidates to officially register for the election, Anne Levade, who oversaw the party’s primary in November, told Le Monde newspaper at the weekend.

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