French prosecutors continue probe of presidential candidate

PARIS (AP) — French financial prosecutors decided Thursday to continue their investigation of embezzlement allegations against conservative presidential candidate Francois Fillon, saying they have too much evidence to drop the case.

Fillon vowed to carry on his campaign amid the ongoing probe, which centers on claims that his wife and two of his children earned as much as 1 million euros ($1.1 million) for fake parliamentary jobs. He has denied wrongdoing.

France's already unpredictable presidential campaign plunged into uncertainty when the national financial prosecutor's office opened a preliminary investigation last month based on Le Canard Enchaine newspaper's published reports about the parliamentary jobs.

The prosecutor's office said Thursday it received the initial police report on the case Wednesday, and has decided to continue investigating.

"The numerous elements gathered already do not allow us to envisage dropping the case in its current state," the prosecutor said in a statement. "The investigations will continue."

Polls considered Fillon the front-runner for the April 23-May 7 election before the scandal erupted. Centrist Emmanuel Macron and nationalist Marine Le Pen have seen their poll numbers rise since then.

Fillon initially said he would step down from the race if he was given charges, but has recently appeared determined to continue his campaign.

In a tweeted statement Thursday, he said the prosecutor's announcement "is just an act of communication that feeds the media soap opera. This does nothing to reduce my determination."

Fillon's lawyers accused the prosecutors of violating rules about investigative secrecy and separation of powers.

While it's not illegal for politicians in France to employ family members, many voters were shocked by allegations that the Fillon family's jobs were fake — and by the large sums they were paid. Fillon won the conservative primary on his reputation as an unsullied politician and his promises to slash public spending.

A judicial official stressed that prosecutors only have the initial police report and cannot make a decision on possible next steps until the final police report is submitted.

Among those potential steps would be elevating the case to a formal judicial inquiry, which would allow for preliminary charges. Another possibility, seen as less likely, is that the financial prosecutor orders the case directly to trial.

With the first round of voting nine weeks away, some are calling for a speedier investigation than usual in a country where high-profile legal proceedings often take years to come to trial.

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