François Fillon faces call to explain payments to wife from MP funds

The rightwing French presidential candidate François Fillon is under pressure to explain the role of his British wife in his political operation after a newspaper alleged that she had been paid about €500,000 (£430,000) in eight years out of parliamentary funds.

The satirical and investigative weekly Le Canard Enchaîné claimed that there were various periods during which Penelope Fillon, who was born in Wales, was paid a generous salary from public funds that were allocated to her husband as an MP for the central Sarthe region to pay for parliamentary staff.

Hiring family members is legal for French MPs and not against parliamentary rules as long as the person is genuinely employed. But the newspaper claimed it had been unable to track down anyone who had seen evidence of Penelope Fillon’s work. Until now she has been regarded as not having played a major role in her husband’s political life.

On a visit to Bordeaux, Fillon told reporters that he was “scandalised” by the Canard Enchaîné article, which he described as “misogynistic”. He said: “So, because she’s my wife she shouldn’t be allowed to work?” He called it campaign mud-slinging but did not reply in detail about the nature of his wife’s work for him.

Fillon is under pressure to provide swift proof of the parliamentary assistant work carried out by his wife who, although she was elected to a village council in 2014 in Sarthe and has been present recently on the election campaign trail, has generally presented herself as not playing a frontline role in her husband’s political activities.

The financial prosecutors’ office in Paris said in a statement on Wednesday it had opened an inquiry into the misuse of public funds.

The issue is all the more pressing for Fillon because, despite 35 years in politics including five years as prime minister, he is styling himself as an anti-system candidate, promoting himself as an honest, austere and “irreproachable” antidote to years of corruption scandals on the French right.

He is currently considered a frontrunner to make it through to the final round of the highly unpredictable French presidential election in May, alongside the far-right Front National’s Marine Le Pen. He also faces a challenge from the former economy minister Emmanuel Macron, who is running on a maverick outsider ticket as “neither left nor right”.

The former prime minister Manuel Valls, who is running for the Socialist party’s nomination as presidential candidate, told France Inter radio that Fillon “cannot say he is the candidate of honesty and not be able to answer this”.