Paris (AFP) - Francois Fillon, the conservative candidate in France's presidential election, will face a probe by investigating magistrates into claims he gave members of his family fake jobs, prosecutors said.
Fillon, one of the frontrunners in the presidential race, will be investigated for alleged embezzlement of public funds and misappropriation of corporate assets, prosecutors said in a statement.
The 62-year-old former prime minister has not been charged at this point, but under French law investigating magistrates can decide to bring charges.
With the first round of the election just two months away, on April 23, the timing of the decision could have a crucial bearing on the race.
Far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen has been bolstered by the scandal and was leading in polls Friday.
Fillon has been fighting claims first made a month ago by Le Canard Enchaine newspaper that he used allowances to pay his British-born wife Penelope at least 680,000 euros ($720,000) over some 15 years as a parliamentary aide.
She is accused of having barely worked for the salary. Two of Fillon's children were also put on the parliamentary payroll for brief periods.
The Canard Enchaine also alleged that Penelope Fillon was also paid tens of thousands of euros by a literary review, the Revue des Deux Mondes, owned by billionaire Marc Ladreit de Lacharriere, a friend of her husband.
Magistrates will investigate whether this amounts to misappropriation of corporate assets.
Prosecutors said the three investigating magistrates named to handle the case will also look at whether Fillon failed to declare the necessary information to parliamentary authorities.
Lawyers for the couple said they were confident the magistrates would find them innocent.
The Fillons have argued that Penelope was legitimately employed as a parliamentary aide and their lawyers say they have given investigators proof of the work she did.
But after the allegations emerged, French TV broadcast an interview that Penelope gave to a British journalist in 2007 in which she said she had never been her husband's assistant.
- Hecklers -
Fillon has dismissed the claims as politically motivated but he acknowledged last weekend that his presidential bid had become "difficult", with hecklers often massing at his campaign stops.
He was giving a campaign speech in Maisons-Alfort, to the east of Paris, when it was announced he would face investigation by magistrates.
The claims had taken a toll on Fillon's standings in the polls, but this week surveys showed he had regained ground and was neck-and-neck with 39-year-old centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron as they fight for second place.
Macron, a former economy minister, has surged from outsider to a frontrunner but faces constant criticism from rivals that his policy platform is too vague.
While Le Pen is forecast to win the most votes in the first round, polls currently show she would be beaten by either Fillon or Macron in the all-important runoff on May 7.
The National Front leader is facing her own fake jobs scandal.
Her personal assistant was charged this week over allegations she was unlawfully paid from funds that 48-year-old Le Pen receives from the European Parliament, where she represents France.
Le Pen on Friday refused to attend questioning by anti-corruption investigators over the accusations, saying she would only answer their questions after the election.
The race remains highly uncertain, with analysts cautioning against predictions after a series of surprises in France and abroad that have wrong-footed observers.
The unstable international background -- from Donald Trump and Brexit to the surge of rightwing nationalism -- is mirrored by an anti-establishment and angry mood in France.