French Candidate Fillon on Defensive Over Suits, Caricature

French conservative presidential candidate Francois Fillon presents his program in Paris, Monday. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

Conservative French presidential candidate Francois Fillon has presented a new version of his campaign platform in an effort to claw back support amid a series of controversies and corruption allegations.

Mr. Fillon was put on the defensive again in recent days after his conservative party posted a caricature of a rival candidate that carried anti-Semitic overtones and a newspaper raised questions about expensive suits he received as a gift.

The candidate himself announced that he was summoned to appear before judges on Wednesday in the ongoing investigation of whether he allegedly used taxpayers’ money to pay family members for jobs that may not have existed.

During a news conference Monday, Mr. Fillon pledged to implement major economic reforms in France, including the abolition of the 35-hour workweek and tax cuts for companies and employees.

He also vowed to decrease public spending by 100 billion euros ($106.6 billion) during the president’s five-year term and to cut the number of public service workers by filling one out of every two positions that fall vacant due to retirements.

“In reality this is a platform of growth. This is a platform which is carried by the ambition to make France a great economic and political power again,” Mr. Fillon said.

Once considered the front-runner in the April 23-May 7 election, Mr. Fillon now lags in polls behind far-right leader Marine Le Pen and centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron.

An official with the Republicans party is facing disciplinary procedures over the online caricature of Mr. Macron, a former banker.

The caricature, which evoked the stereotyped cartoons that were used to demonize Jews in the 1930s and 1940s, pictured the candidate as a banker with a hooked nose, wearing a top hat, holding a sickle and cutting a cigar. Mr. Macron is not Jewish.

Mr. Fillon called it “unacceptable” and said it “evoked a dark epoch of our history,” referring to France’s collaboration with the Nazis.

Meanwhile, responding to a published report suggesting possible conflict of interest around the gifted suits, Mr. Fillon said on Europe-1 radio Monday that his choice of clothes was part of his “private life.”

The Journal du Dimanche weekly newspaper reported that an unidentified benefactor bought Fillon suits worth more than 48,000 euros ($52,000) over the past five years, including two suits worth 13,000 euros ($14,000) last month.

An employee at the high-end boutique where Mr. Fillon reportedly had several suits made would not comment Monday.

The boutique, formerly known as Arnys, is now part of the Berluti luxury house. Berluti did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

“There is only one thing that exists in a democracy: it’s the people’s will. The French will choose,” Mr. Fillon said.

Mr. Fillon acknowledged that his campaign has been disrupted to the point where he is not able to reveal the names of his potential ministers. Reserving the information for now is needed “for obvious reasons, to calm down the conflicts within my own political family,” he said.

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