France election: Fillon lawyers demand dropping of payments probe

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Penelope and Francois FillonImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Mr Fillon (right) insists that neither he nor his wife (left) have done anything wrong

Lawyers for French centre-right presidential candidate Francois Fillon have called on prosecutors to drop a preliminary investigation against him.

They said it violated the democratic principle of the separation of powers for the judiciary to investigate MPs.

Mr Fillon's campaign has been dogged by claims, which he denies, that his wife and two of his children were paid for non-existent parliamentary work.

He has apologised, but some in his party feel he should quit the race.

Recent polls have suggested that the Republicans' candidate may be eliminated in the first round of the presidential election in April, paving the way for a possible run-off between centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

But as France discusses whether he should step aside from the race altogether, it seems Mr Fillon has decided on attack as his best form of defence, the BBC's Lucy Williamson in Paris reports.

On Thursday, Mr Fillon's lawyers described the two-week investigation as "invalid", which "completely tramples democratic principles".

They argued that their client had discretion to use his parliamentary funds as he thought fit.

The lawyers also criticised leaks about the inquiry to the media which they said consistently presented their client in a negative light.

The prosecutors, they said, should either drop the case or refer it to another panel for a ruling on their powers.

Also on Thursday, Mr Fillon's two children were questioned by the investigators.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Protesters turned up at Francois Fillon's campaign rally in Chasseneuil on Thursday

Mr Fillon earlier said that although the practice of paying family members for parliamentary work was legal, French people no longer accepted it and that he had made a "mistake".

But he insisted that he would stay in the race.

He said he had acted legally, had "nothing to hide", and that both his wife and children had done vital work when he was a member of parliament.

Mr Fillon also said he would publish details of his assets on his website and propose reforms on rules regarding parliamentary work.

Tarnished image

Mr Fillon, a 62-year-old former prime minister, has consistently denied wrongdoing since the allegations surfaced last month.

Media reports said his wife, Penelope Fillon, earned €831,400 (£710,000; $900,000) as her husband's parliamentary assistant between 1998 and 2012, and questioned how much work she had done.

It subsequently emerged that Mr Fillon had hired two of his children to act as lawyers, paying them €84,000 between 2005 and 2007 - when they were students.

Investigators have begun an inquiry into the reports. Mr Fillon said he would step down if placed under formal investigation.

Before the claims were published, Mr Fillon was a leading contender in the presidential election, thanks in part to his image as an honest politician.

The practising Catholic enjoyed a landslide victory over Alain Juppe, another former prime minister, in a party primary in November.

Mr Juppe denied reports that he was ready to step in as an alternative candidate should Mr Fillon stand down.