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World

French Presidential Candidate Falters After Reported Hiring Scandal

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

After five years of an extremely unpopular socialist president, Francois Hollande, French mainstream conservatives are seen as a sure bet to take back the presidency when voters go to the polls in France this spring - at least they were. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports that this is changing.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Former Prime Minister Francois Fillon won the conservative primary in a landslide in November, trouncing his former boss Nicolas Sarkozy. The media were already referring to Fillon as the next French president. The socially conservative, proudly Catholic, strait-laced family man was also seen as a sure bet against the populist, far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANCOIS FILLON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Now Fillon is fighting for his political life after a newspaper revealed that his wife earned nearly a million euros in taxpayer money working in his parliamentary office - with little evidence that she actually worked.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FILLON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "They're trying to bring me down by attacking Penelope," an indignant Fillon thundered at a rally this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN RALLY)

UNIDENTIFIED FILLON SUPPORTERS: (Chanting) Fillon, president, Fillon, president.

BEARDSLEY: As recently as this fall, Penelope Fillon said that she'd always been a stay-at-home mom to their five children. Investigators have questioned the couple. It's not illegal for lawmakers to hire family members. The problem, says political science professor Corinne Melloul (ph), is that Fillon built his entire campaign around his personal integrity, strong work ethic and aversion to state handouts.

CORINNE MELLOUL: He presented himself as the candidate who was going to come and, you know, clean up. He didn't say drain the swamp, but that was basically the idea.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: In a news shop in Paris, the scandal is on the front page of every paper and on everyone's lips. Voter Jean Paul Marechal says Fillon cannot be elected now.

JEAN PAUL MARECHAL: Even if he's innocent from a legal point of view, what happened is sort of shadow on his program and his personality.

BEARDSLEY: In fallout from what the French are calling Penelope-gate, a recent poll shows that more than two-thirds of the country want Fillon to drop his bid and let another candidate from the party run. Fillon says he'll fight on and has accused the left of staging a coup d'etat. Political scientist Melloul says the far-right is now best positioned to pick up disgruntled Fillon voters. And Marine Le Pen is no doubt licking her chops.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASO'S "SUN CHILD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.