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Supporters cheer embattled Fillons at French election rally

By Ingrid Melander

PARIS (Reuters) - Thousands of supporters gave embattled French presidential candidate Francois Fillon and his wife a standing ovation at a rally on Sunday, in a show of support after his campaign was thrown off track by allegations of misuse of public funds.

Satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine reported on Wednesday that Penelope Fillon had been paid thousands of euros as a parliamentary assistant for Fillon and his successor but that it could find no proof of her having actually done any work.

Fillon, a conservative former prime minister, was the clear favorite to win the spring election but an opinion survey on Friday suggested the report might be harming his popularity.

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Fillon has denied any wrongdoing and says his wife's jobs, which also included working for a cultural magazine, were not fake. Penelope Fillon has not yet responded to the allegations.

"They tried to sink us, they tried to shoot us down, but here you are!" a defiant Fillon told a cheering, flag-waving crowd which party officials said numbered over 13,000 people.

"I'm not afraid of anything, I've got a thick skin," Fillon said. His voice choked and with tears in his eyes, he said his Welsh-born wife had been at his side "since the beginning, discreetly and with dedication".

Though it is legal in France for parliamentarians to employ family members, it is illegal to do so if no work was done. Financial prosecutors have opened an investigation into suspected misuse of public funds.

The allegations have dented the wholesome image that Fillon, 62, a devout Catholic with 30 scandal-free years in politics, has sought to project. But supporters at the rally dismissed their impact.

"They all do the same anyway, so why target him?," said 74-year old Danielle Cambournac, referring to the fact that French lawmakers are given a set amount of money to spend on their parliamentary assistants.

"I really don't mind, he spends the money (given to lawmakers) as he likes. And nothing's been proven," 70 year-old Francoise Desenfants said.

Arriving with her husband, Penelope Fillon - who seldom attends political events and has in rare interviews presented herself as a housewife who stays away from politics - was greeted by top party officials and handed a bouquet of flowers. She was visibly moved when supporters responded to loudspeaker calls to cheer her.

In his speech to Sunday's rally, Fillon, whose platform focused on hefty spending cuts has drawn criticism even from within his own party, said he would increase pensions of below 1,000 euros a month by over 300 euros. Payroll tax cuts would also benefit workers, he said.

Fillon has said he would drop out of the race if he was to be put under formal investigation. Judicial sources have said they cannot predict how long the inquiry will take.

Le Canard Enchaine said that Penelope Fillon was paid 600,000 euros ($642,000) for her jobs as parliamentary assistant and later at the magazine.

($1 = 0.9351 euros)

(Additional reporting by Michel Rose; Editing by Catherine Evans)

 
 
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