French investigators seize parliamentary documents in Fillon probe

Paris (AFP) - French investigators seized documents in parliament on Tuesday as part of a probe into allegations that conservative presidential hopeful Francois Fillon paid his wife for a fictitious parliamentary job.

The investigators searched Fillon's office for information on payments totalling around 500,000 euros ($535,000) received by his Welsh-born wife Penelope from public funds available to MPs, several parliamentary sources said.

Sources close to the investigation said, however, that Fillon's staff were voluntarily handing over the documents.

The legal woes of Fillon, who had led the presidential race for weeks, is the latest twist in a rollercoaster election that has seen voters hungry for change dump several political heavyweights.

Former prime minister Fillon swept past scandal-tainted ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy and ex-premier Alain Juppe in November's Republicans primary, campaigning on his reputation for integrity.

Conservatives were also won over by his promise to slash 500,000 public servant jobs, cut benefits and increase working time.

But he goes into the last three months of the race damaged by allegations that he paid his wife for years for a fake job as his parliamentary aide.

While lawmakers are entitled to employ family members, the Canard Enchaine weekly behind the revelations said it could find no witnesses to Penelope's work.

Fillon has insisted that his wife played a real, if discreet, role and that he is the victim of a dirty tricks campaign.

The couple were quizzed separately by investigators for several hours on Monday. They were also questioned over money received by Penelope for work at a literary review.

On Monday, the Republicans group in the French parliament expressed "unanimous support" for their candidate.

"He has the unanimous support of the lawmakers," the leader of the Republicans in the lower house, Christian Jacob, said.

The election race is tightening as the April 23 first round approaches, with former economy minister Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen of the anti-immigration and anti-EU National Front both scoring highly in polls.