French conservative candidate Francois Fillon has refused to quit the presidential race despite receiving a summons to face charges of faking parliamentary jobs for his family, including his British wife.
Calling the investigation a “political assassination”, Mr Fillon called on his supporters to “resist” and said he would leave it up to voters to decide his fate.
Once a front-runner in the race for the April-May two-round election, Mr Fillon’s chances have slipped since the probe was opened in January.
Mr Fillon abruptly cancelled a campaign stop on Wednesday after receiving the legal summons, prompting media speculation that he would quit the race.
“I will not surrender,” he told reporters at his headquarters later. “I will not withdraw.”
Mr Fillon denied all allegations and said legal procedure was not properly followed in the probe, which he called unprecedented and unacceptable during a presidential election campaign.
He said he was summoned for questioning on March 15 “with the goal of being given preliminary charges”.
The court summons was widely expected after the financial prosecutor’s office pushed the case to a higher level on Friday, opening a formal judicial inquiry that allows investigating judges to file preliminary charges.
Financial prosecutor Eliane Houlette denied reports that Mr Fillon’s wife Penelope, from Abergavenny in Wales, was taken in for questioning on Wednesday.
Mr Fillon, who won the conservative primary on a platform of tighter security and public spending cuts, initially said he would withdraw from the race if he was charged – but later said he was determined to let the voters judge him instead of investigators.
“France is greater than my errors,” he said.
The alleged fake jobs are especially shocking to many voters because of Mr Fillon’s pledged spending cuts and his clean-cut image.
Investigative weekly Le Canard Enchaine reported that payments were made to Mrs Fillon and two of the couple’s five children that totalled more than one million euro (£850,000) over many years.
After a preliminary investigation opened on January 25, the financial prosecutor’s office decided on Friday to launch a formal judicial inquiry, turning it over to investigating judges who can bring charges or throw the case out.
The list of potential charges include misappropriation of public funds, abuse of public funds and influence trafficking.
Protesters have been at Mr Fillon’s recent campaign events for the election, in which far-right candidate Marine Le Pen is expected to make a strong showing.
Mr Fillon’s Republicans party has no clear Plan B for an eventual withdrawal by Mr Fillon.
The runner-up in the party’s first-ever primary, the more centre-leaning Alain Juppe, has said he would not want to run in Mr Fillon’s place.