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Defiant Fillon refuses to drop out of French presidential race as Le Pen advances

Defiant Fillon refuses to drop out of French presidential race as Le Pen advances

Fighting to salvage his position in a tight election race where the far-right National Front threatens to upend the political establishment, embattled French presidential candidate François Fillon apologized to the nation Monday for employing his wife in his parliamentary office.

At a press conference in Paris, the center-right Republican candidate acknowledged an “error of judgment but vowed to stay in the race. He insisted that there was nothing untoward in the arrangements, and promised to publish details of the payments later Monday, saying he was prepared to be fully transparent “because I have nothing to hide.”

“To collaborate with family members in politics was an accepted thing; it is not accepted today. I am sorry and apologize,” Fillon told reporters at his campaign headquarters, as he sought to draw a line under the scandal.

Until recently the front-runner in the polls, the former prime minister has faced growing calls to step aside since reports emerged nearly two weeks ago claiming that his wife, Penelope, had been paid more than 800,000 euros ($860,000) from the public purse as a parliamentary assistant. Fillon had also employed two of his children as assistants.

It’s not illegal in France for politicians to employ family members, but questions over the high salaries and reports that his wife was rarely present in parliament led prosecutors to open a preliminary probe into the affair.

Support for Fillon, who has campaigned on a pledge to curb public spending, has sharply declined as a result, with recent polling showing the Republican candidate likely to be eliminated in the first round, finishing behind independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front. The elections are held in two stages, with a first round of voting on April 23, before the top two candidates face each other in a runoff a fortnight later.

The polls suggest Macron would beat Le Pen in the May 7 runoff. But observers are cautious not to put too much stock in the numbers after experts failed to predict the recent election of Donald Trump or the U.K. Brexit vote.

In his comments Monday, Fillon singled out the challenge posed by the National Front, which threatens to ride a wave of populist discontent to mount a historic challenge to France’s establishment parties.

“The real danger is giving our future to the extreme right led by a family,” he said.

Le Pen sets out her campaign

National Front leader Le Pen formally launched her bid for the presidency over the weekend at a conference in Lyon where her nationalist party laid out a 144-point manifesto for France.

In a firebrand speech on Sunday, Le Pen railed against globalization, radical Islam, and the European Union, positioning herself as the “only the candidate of the people” in a race in which she claimed her rivals hailed from “the cash-rich right and the cash-rich left.”

The divide is no longer between the Left and the Right, but between the patriots and the globalists,” she said, describing a France that was threatened by the ideologies of globalism and radical Islam. “We don’t want to live under the yoke of radical Islamism; no Republican can accept that,” she said.

To cries of “This is our country” from the crowd, she pledged to pull France out of the euro, curb immigration, and tax imports.

She promised to hold a referendum on leaving the EU, which she described as a “failure,” if efforts to negotiate reforms were unsuccessful. Her vision for the bloc included abolishing the border-free area and the single currency – two fundamental features of the EU in its current form.

The 48-year-old also pledged to limit certain rights currently available to all residents, such as free education, to French citizens only.

She said her supporters should be encouraged by Trump’s win and the Brexit vote. “The winds of change are turning around the world,” she said. “People are waking up.”

Macron warns against following the U.S.

Le Pen’s biggest rival, the former investment banker and centrist Emmanuel Macron, also spoke in Lyon over the weekend, presenting a stark alternative to Le Pen’s vision for France.

The former Socialist economy minister, who has set up his own party, En Marche (On The Move), to contest the elections, called for national unity, and explicitly warned the French against following Britain and the U.S. into isolationism.

“I am thinking about our British friends who chose to leave Europe,” he said. “I am thinking about the withdrawal … by our American friends who may be deciding to abandon their historic mission, which is, by our side, to ensure peace around the globe.”

France’s unpopular President Francois Hollande is not seeking re-election. In a surprise outcome, his Socialist Party nominated the far-left candidate Benoit Hamon over former prime minister Manuel Valls as its candidate. Hamon is currently fourth in polling.

Cover: ASSOCIATED PRESS

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