PARIS, March 13 (Reuters) - Francois Fillon, favourite to win France’s presidential election until he was hit by allegations of financial impropriety, sought on Monday to revive a faltering campaign, but found himself on the defensive again, this time over gifts of expensive suits.
The 63-year-old former prime minister, already hit by graver accusations that he paid his wife and children lavish amounts of public funds for little work, launched a media offensive to promote an economic programme based on drastic public spending cuts.
He has already slipped from first to third place in opinion polls, a ranking that would see him knocked out in round one of the ballot on April 23 in favour of far-right leader Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron, current favourite in polls.
Fillon’s latest offensive consisted of radio and newspaper interviews followed by a news conference where he detailed how he planned to slash public spending by 100 billion euros ($107 billion) over five years and cut 500,000 public sector jobs.
“Over the first three months, I would launch the budget amendments that would include the most important fiscal measures of the term,” Fillon said in an interview in Les Echos newspaper.
“I will also put to a vote major social reforms, such as the abolition of the 35-hour working week”.
Once again, however, Fillon’s attempts to revive a flagging campaign were troubled by potentially damaging stories of high living that sit awkwardly with his claim at his party’s primary last November to be beyond reproach ethically.
A newspaper at the weekend said he had received close to 50,000 euros worth of suits and clothing since 2012, gifts that, if not illegal, come on the back of more serious allegations of impropriety.
While seeking to refocus media coverage on policy and the details of his programme, Fillon faced yet more questions from journalists about his personal conduct.
“I cannot see this as anything other than a manhunt,” he told Europe 1 radio.
He has already accused the media and the justice system of bias and fought to keep fellow conservatives on his side after press allegations in January that he paid his wife Penelope and two of his children hundreds of thousands of euros of taxpayers’ money for small-time assistance work such as opening his mail.
He insists he did nothing illegal and that he is the victim of politically motivated reports designed to destroy his bid for power after five years of Socialist Francois Hollande.
Fillon did not deny the latest media report, published by the Journal du Dimanche newspaper on Sunday evening, but said the story of expensive suits was proof of a slur campaign.
Monday’s media offensive comes two days before Fillon is to meet judicial magistrates investigating the money paid to his wife Penelope and children.
He has said himself the magistrates are likely to put him officially under investigation on counts of suspected impropriety but, contrary to what he initially announced, has said he will not drop out of the race if that happens.
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Writing by Brian Love; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Richard Lough