By Richard Balmforth
PARIS (Reuters) - The frontrunner in France's presidential election race, conservative Francois Fillon, acknowledged on Tuesday that his wife had worked for him when he was a legislator, but denied a media report that she had been paid for fictitious employment.
Fillon, 62, a former prime minister who is tipped to win the presidency in May, acted quickly to dampen possible scandal after a satirical weekly reported that Penelope Fillon had drawn about 500,000 euros ($536,300) in salary over eight years for working as an assistant to her husband when he was a lawmaker in the National Assembly and later to the man who replaced him.
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It is not illegal for French parliamentarians to employ a family member in their office.
However, Le Canard Enchaine, a highly popular satirical newspaper which has been lifting the lid on scandal in high places in France for decades, said its reporters had found practically no sign that Penelope Fillon had actually done any work.
A spokesman for Fillon acknowledged she had been an employee of her husband and that she had also worked briefly for a prestigious cultural journal.
"It is common practice that the spouses of parliamentarians are their employees, on the left as well as on the right," the spokesman, Thierry Solere, said.
Responding to the suggestion that Penelope Fillon had not really worked, Benoist Apparu, another official in Fillon's camp, said: "She has always worked in the shadows because it is not her style to put herself forward."
"It (employment of a spouse) is neither illegal nor amoral. It is authorized by the National Assembly," Apparu said.
Officials gave no details of how much she had been paid.
Fillon, a political veteran who served in several government posts before being prime minister under right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy from 2007-12, enjoys the reputation of a country gentleman and family man.
The quick reaction to the newspaper report about his wife suggested that Fillon's camp was eager to stamp out any report that could hurt that wholesome image as the race for the presidency gathers pace.
While Fillon is favorite to win the election in May, he will face a strong challenge from the far-right leader Marine Le Pen and possibly from independent centrist Emmanuel Macron
Shortly before he went on to win the nomination of The Republicans in a primary vote last November, Fillon gave a half-hour interview to a television channel in the grounds of the sprawling chateau near Le Mans where he lives with Penelope Fillon, who is from Wales. The couple married in 1980 and have five children.
In that interview he emphasized the importance of family, saying he would never allow politics to encroach on his private life.
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(Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry; Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Richard Lough)