PARIS - A leading presidential candidate vowed Wednesday to press on with his campaign, despite a formal inquiry into a fake jobs scandal tainting his family and amid growing protests against political corruption in France.
Reversing an earlier promise that he would end his campaign if placed under formal investigation, conservative ex-prime minister Francois Fillon said at a press conference he would not give up despite a summons to appear before a judge March 15. He lambasted the judiciary and the media, likening the allegations against him to a political assassination.
"I won't give up, I won't surrender, I won't pull out," Fillon said, adding he counted on French voters to decide his fate rather than a biased legal procedure."
Once considered a near shoo-in for president, the 62-year-old Fillon is now seeing his support vanish, a process that gathered tempo Wednesday as a key member of his campaign team stepped down and the center-right Union of Democrats and Independents (UDI) party allied with his campaign announced it was suspending its participation.
Shortly after Fillon's remarks, Bruno Le Maire quit his campaign team as foreign affairs adviser, citing Fillon's failure to keep his promise and withdraw should a formal investigation be opened.
Fillon was also booed during an afternoon visit to an agricultural fair outside Paris that is considered a must-attend event for presidential candidates.
Fillon "is losing his nerves" and "his sense of reality," independent candidate Emmanuel Macron told French TV. Macron is running neck-and-neck with Fillon in second place, and his presidential bid will likely be boosted by his rival's struggles.
Fillon's announcement caps a campaign rocked by stunning upsets, with establishment favorites ousted from the race and the far-right eyeing its first real chance to capture the presidency during the April-May voting.
Fillon not alone
A French judge is investigating allegations that Fillon's wife and two children were paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for work they did not do. He is hardly the only politician mired in scandal. Far-right frontrunner Marine Le Pen and her National Front party also face allegations of misusing European Union funds to pay member of her staff for non-existent party jobs.
But the allegations targeting Fillon are particularly rankling, given his "Mr. Clean" image and his calls for public sacrifice and spending cuts - even as his family allegedly enriched itself on taxpayers' money.
By contrast, French do not view Le Pen and her party as having personally enriching themselves from the allegedly fictitious jobs - and analysts suggest Le Pen's anti-EU credentials may be burnished by the perceptions she has cheated the bloc.
Le Pen has also refused to be questioned by police, citing her immunity as a member of the EU parliament — although she lost that immunity this week over another matter.
Scandals have long entwined French political life, touching a slew of politicians, including former presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy was ordered to stand trial last month on charges of illegally financing his failed 2012 re-election bid. Chirac was given a suspended sentence six years ago after being convicted of graft when he was mayor of Paris.
But voter tolerance appears to be fading. Thousands joined recent anti-corruption protests across the country, including a small march to the National Assembly in Paris Wednesday afternoon. Those numbers pale compared with those of recent anti-corruption protests in Romania.
'At all levels’
"The problem with corruption is [it’s] at all levels and concerns many more politicians than people think," Greens Party lawmaker Isabelle Attard told local newspaper 20 Minutes of French corruption.
Those sentiments are echoed by some French voters.
"He talks about equality for everyone, but according to the allegations he's hired his wife and children for jobs they're not necessarily qualified to do," says 18-year-old student Solene Papegauy of Fillon. "That kind of injustice disgusts me."
But 62-year-old Christian Humeau said he could tolerate a bit of graft.
"I'd rather have a politician who's intelligent and good for the country, even if he robs a bit, than a stupid saint," Humeau said, adding he would probably vote for Fillon.
But Fillon's criticism of the judiciary drew a swift rebuttal by leftist President Francois Hollande, who is not running for re-election.
"I solemnly stand against all questioning of magistrates as they investigate and study cases in the respect of the rule of law," Hollande said in a statement in which he described Fillon's remarks as "extremely serious."
Beyond questioning the impartiality of the judiciary, Fillon has also attacked the media, accusing it of having lynched and assassinated him politically.
The fake jobs allegations were first reported by satirical French newspaper Le Canard Enchaine. The scandal quickly earned the nickname "Penelopegate" in reference to Fillon's wife, Penelope, who allegedly earned nearly $1 million as a parliamentary assistant and for editorial work that she may not have done.
Since then, new reports revealed his son and daughter also earned parliamentary salaries for questionable jobs.