March 1 (UPI) -- French presidential candidate François Fillon said he will not leave the race, despite an investigation into whether he hired his wife for a non-existent job.
Fillon, 62, leader of the center-right Les Republicains Party, won party primary elections in November by highlighting his scandal-free image. It contrasts with that of rival and former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who is involved in several long-running legal scandals. Current French President Francoise Hollande is not running for re-election.
Weeks after winning the party nomination, it was alleged that Fillon paid his wife Penelope a total of $717,000, over an undetermined number of years, for her work as his assistant while he was a member of parliament. Investigations by French media organizations have found no evidence she ever worked for him, and she has denied ever working as an aide to her husband, France 24 reported Monday.
Fillon has also been questioned about government jobs for his two children, the newspaper The Guardian reported Wednesday. It noted that it is not illegal for members of the French parliament to hire relatives, but the jobs must be legitimate. The financial state prosecutor's office announced last week that a full judicial inquiry into the allegations would begin. Fillon said Wednesday that the case was advancing, with a summons issued.
Fillon is now "mise en examen," a term roughly meaning "informally under examination," a legal status with no equivalent in the U.S. legal system.
Fillon said in Paris on Wednesday that he would continue in the presidential race although he is no longer the front-runner. He denied the accusations and said his presumption of innocence has been "ignored and has disappeared," adding the allegations are an attempt at a "political assassination."
The first round of the French presidential election will be held on April 23. The top three contenders are Fillon, Emmanuel Macron of the En Marche! party, and Marine Le Pen of the Front National party. If no candidate wins a majority of the votes, a run-off election will be held on May 7.