PARIS (AP) — French presidential hopeful Francois Fillon's campaign hit its first major hurdle Wednesday, when financial prosecutors opened a preliminary investigation following claims that his wife was paid about 500,000 euros ($537,000) with parliamentary funds while holding a fake job.
France's financial prosecutor launched its probe into suspected embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds just hours after Le Canard Enchaine newspaper reported that Penelope Fillon earned the money as a parliamentary aide to her husband during his tenure as a lawmaker without actually working.
Fillon, the conservative candidate in France's spring election, blasted the report, saying he hopes to talk to the financial prosecutor's office as quickly as possible to "re-establish the truth."
The probe "will allow me to silence this campaign of calumny and end these baseless accusations," he said.
He did not deny that his wife was a paid aide, saying instead he was surprised that "such old and legal acts" are in the news three months ahead of the presidential election.
It's not illegal for French legislators to hire their relatives as long as they are genuinely employed.
According to the weekly newspaper, which said it had access to Penelope Fillon's pay slips, the candidate's wife was paid by her husband from 1998 to 2002 when he was lawmaker serving his native Sarthe region.
When Fillon was handed a minister position in 2002 under Jacque Chirac's presidency, Penelope Fillon became an assistant to Marc Joulaud, who replaced her husband at the French parliament. Le Canard Enchaine said her wages went up during that period, earning between 6,900 to 7,900 euros a month before taxes.
The newspaper claims that she was re-employed by her husband for at least six months in 2012 after Francois Fillon was elected Paris legislator.
As the conservative nominee, Fillon, a former prime minister, has been championing transparency and deep cuts in the ranks of civil servants to lower state spending. Early opinion polls suggest that he and far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen could advance to the second round of the April-May election.
During a trip to the southwestern city of Bordeaux, the conservative candidate hit back at the report, slamming the newspaper for what he called a misogynistic approach.
He said he was "outraged by the contempt and the misogyny in this story. Just because she is my wife, she should not be entitled to work? Could you imagine a politician saying, as this story did, that the only thing a woman can do is making jam? All the feminists would scream."
Fillon spokesman Philippe Vigier earlier insisted that Penelope Fillon's work wasn't fictional.
Benoit Hamon, who is vying with former Prime Minister Manuel Valls to be the Socialists presidential candidate and could face Fillon in the presidential race, proposed that, in the future, close relatives of politicians should not be hired and paid for by parliamentary funds.
"Lawmakers should not be allowed to hire their children, cousins, relatives or wives anymore," Hamon told French public TV.