French Presidential candidate Francois Fillon has been formally charged over allegations that he used public money to pay family members, including his wife, for work they might not have done.

Fillon has for weeks denied any wrongdoing and said he is the victim of a "manhunt".
Fillon has for weeks denied any wrongdoing and said he is the victim of a "manhunt". (TRT World and Agencies)

French presidential candidate Francois Fillon has been placed under formal investigation over the misuse of public funds in a "fake jobs" scandal, weeks ahead of the first round of elections.

"He was charged this morning. The hearing was brought forward so that it could take place in a calm manner," his lawyer Antonin Levy said on Tuesday.

A judicial source said the 63-year-old conservative candidate has been put under formal investigation on suspicion of diverting public funds, complicity in misappropriating funds, receiving the funds and not declaring assets fully.

TRT World's Craig Copetas is in Paris with more.

Fillon's election campaign took a serious hit after the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine in January reported about the employment of his wife, Penelope, and two of their five children as parliamentary assistants.

It alleged that he paid his wife hundreds of thousands of euros for work which she might not have done.

Later, Fillon admitted to employing his family members, but has denied any wrongdoing.

While it is legal in France for politicians to hire family members for legitimate jobs, the case against Fillon hinges on whether parliamentary positions he gave to his family members were real or fictitious.

Under French law, being put under formal investigation means there is "serious or consistent evidence" that points to probable involvement of a suspect in a crime.

It is a step towards a trial, but a number of such investigations have been dropped without going to court.

After initially saying he would withdraw from the presidential race if charged, Fillon has vowed to continue, calling the investigation an attempted "political assassination".

Fillon was the front runner for two-round presidential elections due to be held on April 23 and May 7.

But after the scandal his popularity dropped below those of far-right leader Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron.

In the two-round French presidential election, only the two top contenders in the April 23 vote will be allowed to take part in the runoff on May 7.

Current polls show Macron and Le Pen are likely to reach the second round of the election, while Fillon appears likely to be eliminated in the first round.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies