Pressure mounts on François Fillon as jobs inquiry widens to include children

French presidential candidate François Fillon is fighting for his political life after an anti-fraud investigation into payments made to his wife for an alleged fake job as a parliamentary assistant was extended to look at roles he gave his children.

Pressure on Fillon intensified after video footage emerged of his wife denying she had ever been his parliamentary assistant – contradicting his defence.

Until last week, Fillon, the candidate for the rightwing party Les Républicains (LR), had been considered a favourite to face off against the far-right Front National’s Marine Le Pen in the final round of the election in May. But he has dropped in the polls since prosecutors opened a preliminary investigation for possible misuse of public funds.

Newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné has alleged that Fillon payed his wife, Penelope, who is British, about €830,000 (£700,000) of taxpayers’ money as his parliamentary assistant for more than a decade when he was an MP.

It is legal, and commonplace, in France for MPs to hire family members, as long as the person is genuinely employed. But investigators are seeking to establish whether Penelope Fillon, who allegedly did not have a parliamentary assistant’s security pass and had always stressed that she had no role in her husband’s political life, did in fact carry out the role she was paid for.

Fillon denies any wrongdoing and said his wife’s parliamentary job was real. But one of France’s main investigative news programmes, Envoyé Special, unearthed previously unseen footage of Penelope Fillon telling a journalist she had never worked for her husband. In the 2007 footage for the Sunday Telegraph, she told Kim Willsher, now a correspondent for the Guardian in Paris:“I have never actually been his (Fillon’s) assistant or anything like that.”

Penelope Fillon’s lawyer, Pierre Cornut-Gentille, told Agence France-Presse that isolated phrases should not be taken out of context and said his client have given investigators “all the details showing the existence of an actual job”.

The allegations that Fillon’s family could have used public funds to enrich themselves are deeply damaging for Fillon, who has campaigned as a sleaze-free economic reformer who would slash public spending and cut 500,000 public sector jobs.

On Thursday investigators widened their preliminary investigation to look at Fillon’s employment of two of his children as assistants when he was serving in the French Senate. He told French TV last week that he had hired his children for their expertise as lawyers. But it emerged that they were in fact students at the time, and had not qualified as lawyers. They were paid €84,000 between them from public funds, the Canard Enchaîné alleged.

Fillon has brushed aside the allegations as a plot against him and repeatedly vowed not to quit as candidate. He said he would only step down if criminal charges were brought against him. But the preliminary investigation is likely to run for weeks, leaving his campaign in limbo.