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Officials Launch Formal Investigation Of French Candidate Francois Fillon

Conservative French presidential candidate Francois Fillon during a visit to the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Berlin in January.

Once the front-runner in France's presidential election, mainstream conservative candidate Francois Fillon is now confronting serious doubts he will even make it to the final round of voting. That uncertainty only deepened for the scandal-plagued politician Tuesday, as French authorities officially announced they are investigating Fillon on allegations he illegally diverted public money.

Officials filed preliminary charges against Fillon in a probe of the publicly funded jobs arranged for his wife and children — jobs they allegedly never did. Citing the national financial prosecutor's office, The Associated Press reports Fillon is "accused of misusing public funds, receiving money from the misuse of public funds, complicity in misusing public funds and improper declaration of assets, among other charges."

"Under French law, being put under formal investigation means there is 'serious or consistent evidence' that points to probable involvement in a crime," The Guardian notes. "It is a step toward a trial but investigations can be dropped without proceeding to court."

Nevertheless, the charges mark a significant escalation in a scandal that first broke in late January. That's when French media first reported that Fillon used taxpayer money to pay his wife, Penelope, a handsome salary for years for doing a fictitious job. He is also accused of paying two of his children for similarly fake jobs.

It is legal in France for politicians to hire family members, on condition that the work that they are paid for is in fact real.

Fillon, who has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing in the matter, has vowed to stay in the presidential race — despite previously stating that he would drop out if placed under formal investigation.

"Those who don't respect the laws of the Republic should not be allowed to run. There's no point in talking about authority when one's not beyond reproach," he said during his campaign for the conservative nomination, according to the AP.

He has changed his position, however, casting himself as a victim of "political assassination" and laying blame instead at the feet of the media and the justice system. As NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports for our Newscast unit, Fillon delivered a speech laying out his policies and presenting himself as the only man for the job as recently as Monday.

Yet his bid for office has bowed beneath the weight of the unfolding scandal, and as France draws closer to its two-part presidential election, Fillon's prospects continue to sink. Where once he was the odds-on favorite, Fillon has lately placed third in polls — behind Marine Le Pen, of the far-right National Front party, and independent centrist Emmanuel Macron.

The first round of France's presidential election will be held in late April, after which the top two finishers will compete in a head-to-head runoff on May 7.

If Fillon can take some small solace, it's that he is not alone among the candidates in drawing investigators' scrutiny. As NPR's Rebecca Hersher previously reported, Le Pen, who has been a member of European Parliament since 2004, "has been asked to pay back more than $320,000 to the European Parliament because two of her aides in Brussels were actually working for her campaign in France."

And earlier this month, the legislative body stripped Le Pen of parliamentary immunity for tweeting graphic images of violence perpetrated by Islamic State militants. The move allows French prosecutors to pursue legal action against her if they choose.

"I have always voted but I've never seen anything like this," one octogenarian French voter tells Eleanor. "I feel like I'm watching a film."

And with Fillon's recent struggles, that voter is not wrong, as Eleanor reports.

"It's a first in modern times that the two top candidates for president are from outside the traditional two-party system."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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