FRENCH presidential candidate Francois Fillon has been given preliminary charges in an investigation of taxpayer-funded jobs his British wife and children were given but allegedly never performed.

The charges further damage the former prime minister’s chances of winning the two-round April 23-May 7 French presidential election in which he was once viewed as the leading contender. Fillon has denied wrongdoing and vowed to continue his campaign.

Investigating judges filed the charges on Tuesday, Celine Clement-Petremann of the national financial prosecutor’s office said.

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It was a surprise move – Fillon had said the judges summoned him for Wednesday, but they apparently moved up the decision.

Fillon is accused of misusing public funds, receiving money from the misuse of public funds, complicity in misusing public funds and improper declaration of assets, among other charges, the prosecutor’s office said.

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 wife Penelope, from Abergavenny in Wales, and two of their five children were real or fictitious.

Fillon’s family members insist they did the work for which they were generously paid.

Legally, Fillon’s case is about to enter into a new phase.

Fillon initially said he would quit the presidential race if he were charged. However, he later decided to maintain his candidacy, explaining he was the legitimate winner of the conservative primary and that his Republicans party had no plan B to replace him as the nominee.

The decision caused a deep rift within the party, prompting many to abandon his campaign.

“There is only one thing that exists in a democracy: it’s the people’s will. The French will choose,” he said on Monday in a news conference.

Once a front-runner of the presidential campaign, Fillon has seen his popularity drop following successive waves of revelations in French newspaper reports since January.

The allegations over the allegedly illusory jobs have been particularly damaging to his campaign because Fillon used to tout his reputation for probity.

“Those who don’t respect the laws of the republic should not be allowed to run. There’s no point in talking about authority when one’s not beyond reproach,” he said while running for the conservative nomination.

Independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron has overtaken Fillon in pre-election polls, increasingly appearing as the new front-runner.

Another top contender has also caught the attention of judicial investigators.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen and some members of her National Front party are targeted in several ongoing investigations.

Last week, Le Pen refused to appear before judges in a case concerning her European parliamentary aides.

Polls show Le Pen is likely to reach the second round of the election.