Fake job claims, probes mar French election

A rumor of an affair, a series of fake job scandals and a handful of investigations -- the French presidential election campaign has not lacked for drama.

For the three main candidates aiming to replace President Francois Hollande, the road to the Élysée is filled with political potholes.

On Wednesday, center-right Republican nominee Francois Fillon again rejected demands to stand down over allegations he paid his wife and children for work they did not do.

On Thursday the far right politician Marine Le Pen, who is leading several polls ahead of the first round of voting, was stripped of her immunity by the European Parliament, allowing French prosecutors to investigate her over offensive tweets sent in December 2015.

And the candidate most likely to benefit from all of this -- the centrist Emmanuel Macron -- has also courted controversy.

To top it all off, two people were wounded when a police sniper accidentally fired his weapon during a speech by Hollande on Tuesday.

French voters go to the polls on April 23 and if no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, there will be a runoff ballot on May 7.

Here's what the latest developments mean for the presidential election.

Fillon to flop?

The embattled Fillon said Wednesday he will persevere in the race despite an ongoing probe into the claims against him and his wife Penelope.

In a televised statement in Paris, Fillon announced that he will be placed under formal investigation on March 15, yet he would not step aside.

"I will not resign. I will not give in. I will not withdraw," he said. "I will go to the end because it is democracy that is being defied. I ask you to follow me."

The announcement prompted one member of his campaign to quit, saying Fillon had gone back on his word.

The questions began when investigative newspaper Le Canard Enchainé published reports that Fillon's wife and two of his adult children earned nearly one million euros ($1.08 million) as parliamentary assistants, but didn't show up for work.

Fillon, 62, has rejected the claims and insists that he has "nothing to hide."

But the damage has already been done, French political expert Agnes Poirier told CNN.

"Fillon is damaged beyond repair, I think, simply because he presented himself as 'Mr Clean,'" Poirier said.

According to Emmanuelle Schön-Quinlivan, lecturer in European politics at University College Cork, Fillon "said goodbye to the second round" with his latest speech.

"For his supporters, it's a shock that he's indicted. Politically, morally, ethically, that has killed him."

Problems for Le Pen?

Le Pen is the most controversial choice for president, a status she's unlikely to relinquish any time soon.

The National Front leader is facing increased scrutiny after several members of her staff were accused by officials of being paid for non-existent jobs at the European Parliament.

She initially admitted they had been paid while not working, the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) said. She later denied having said so.

Le Pen's fractious relationship with Europe was further exacerbated Thursday when MEPs voted to rescind her parliamentary immunity over a case involving violent images she posted on Twitter.

An inquiry was opened under a French law banning the distribution of violent images, after Le Pen tweeted images of killings by ISIS militants in December 2015.

Under French law, the maximum penalty for distributing violent images is three years in prison and a fine of up to €75,000 ($79,000).

The loss of her immunity only relates to this case only and not the one being investigated by OLAF.

But according to Schön-Quinlivan, the tweet case is unlikely to do any lasting damage. She says that if anything, it is the ongoing investigation into her co-workers which could yet prove far more dangerous.

"Where Le Pen is in huge trouble is with the fictitious jobs and illegal financing, though she's still covered by her parliamentary immunity," she said.

"I don't think it will affect her campaign at all. Her supporters just want someone who will come in, throw over the table and have someone do something radical.

"From a political point of view, she will make her supporters think there's a witch hunt against her and her rhetoric will mobilize them."

Macron's moment?

The youthful Macron has so far managed to sidestep scandal, although he was forced to dismiss allegations of an extra-marital affair.

More recently he was criticized for his comments which condemned France's colonial past in Algeria. He later apologized.

Three recent polls all have Le Pen in the lead in the first round of voting, with Macron and Fillon fighting for second place. But with Fillon seemingly falling away, Poirier says Macron will be the favorite to prevail in the second round of voting, once the field is whittled down to two.

"Macron has wind in his sails," said Poirier. "This is not only since Fillon was struck with 'PenelopeGate,' but especially since centrist leader Francois Bayrou sacrificed his own personal ambitions and endorsed Macron, forming an alliance with him.

"Together, they look rather unbeatable."

Macron was the economy minister in President Hollande's Socialist government, and his time in office was not without controversy. His determination to push through business-friendly, liberal reforms made him unpopular on the government's own benches.

Announcing his resignation from the Socialist party in August, Macron explained that he had "touched the limits of our system" before catapulting himself into the race at the age of 39 by launching his own party, "En Marche."

"There is a movement towards Macron -- he's the Obama, the alternative to Le Pen for those who think we've tried everything but don't want Le Pen," said Schon-Quinlivan.

"At the moment, it's about what everyone is doing for the second round because the one who goes up against Le Pen will be the next President."

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly quoted who Bayrou had endorsed.

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