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Francois Fillon, former French prime minister, member of The Republicans political party and 2017 presidential election candidate of the centre-right, visits a neighborhood as he campaigns in Tourcoing, France, February 17, 2017. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

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PARIS (Reuters) - Conservative French presidential candidate Francois Fillon said on Friday he would stay in the race come what may, after saying for weeks that he would step down if he were put under formal investigation over his wife's employment.

France's financial prosecutor on Thursday decided to keep open an investigation into whether or not Fillon's wife did real work in exchange for receiving hundreds of thousands of euros in taxpayers' money as his parliament assistant.

Any decision to put Fillon, 62, under formal investigation would be the decision for an investigating magistrate, and could take months or years.

Fillon told daily Le Figaro he had wanted the justice system to work quickly during the campaign, but that the court is continuing the investigation and that it would be scandalous to deprive the right and centre of a candidate.

"My decision is clear: I am a candidate and I will continue until victory," he told Le Figaro in an interview.

Fillon's status as favourite to win the presidency in May has evaporated in the past three weeks and two recent polls showed him being knocked out in the first round of the two-stage vote in April and May.

Fillon - who has long cultivated an image of probity and criticised people for taking government handouts - has been heckled for weeks by protesters at every campaign outing.

At a campaign meeting in the northern city of Tourcoing on Friday critics shouted anti-Fillon slogans and banged on pots and pans, forcing him to hold the meeting behind closed doors.

(Reporting by Geert De Clercq; Editing by Dominic Evans)

Reuters