President Emmanuel Macron has called for a probe into claims that prosecutors were pressured to move fast in a fraud inquiry against former prime minister Francois Fillon, his main right-wing rival in France's 2017 presidential race.
Fillon lost what many considered a walkover vote after a newspaper report claimed that he orchestrated a fake parliamentary assistant job for his wife that saw her paid hundreds of thousands of euros (dollars) in public funds.
A ruling will be handed down on June 29 after a trial in which Fillon vigorously denied the claims, saying he was the victim of a political hit job.
The scandal flared anew this week after it emerged that the former head of France's Financial Prosecutor's Office (PNF) told lawmakers she had sustained "pressure" and "very strict oversight" aimed at bringing charges quickly against Fillon.
Fillon's supporters seized on the comments as proof that the prosecutor's superiors, possibly acting at the behest of justice ministry officials, had infringed on the judiciary’s independence to speed his downfall.
He was charged six weeks after the fraud claims emerged in the Canard Enchaine newspaper, an unusually swift move in a country where legal inquiries can take years.
The top Paris public prosecutor denied exercising any undue pressure and on Friday the former financial prosecutor, Eliane Houlette, tried to walk back her statements, saying she "regretted" that they had been "distorted or misunderstood".
But the uproar prompted Macron's office to say late Friday that the president had asked France's judicial watchdog, the Supreme Judiciary Council, to investigate the claims.
"These statements, which have provoked a significant outcry, have been interpreted as showing that pressure could have been put on the judiciary during a critical moment in our democratic process," the presidential Elysee Palace said in a statement.
"It is therefore essential to remove all doubt on the independence and impartiality of the justice system in this matter," it said.
- 'Penelopegate' -
Prosecutors have asked the Paris court to give Fillon, 66, a five-year sentence, with three years suspended, as well as a three-year suspended jail term for his Welsh-born wife Penelope.
They accuse Fillon of paying his wife 613,000 euros net ($700,000) in public money over 15 years for a fictitious job, saying the couple produced no solid proof she ever carried out any significant work.
The charges against the pair and a third defendant, Marc Joulaud, who stood in for Fillon in parliament when he was a cabinet minister and also hired Penelope as an assistant, carry a maximum term of 10 years in prison.
The Fillons deny pilfering state coffers for their personal enrichment, insisting that Penelope, a discreet figure who shunned the limelight, did real work for the politician in his rural Sarthe constituency.
Penelope told the court she spent a lot of time sorting her husband's mail, attending public events near their rural manor and gathering information for his speeches.
Prosecutors said her efforts amounted to no more than "the social role of a (politician's) spouse."
"Penelopegate", as the affair was dubbed by the French media, is widely believed to have cost Fillon the 2017 presidential election in which he was the clear favourite.
Instead, he crashed out in the first round of voting, a humiliation for the French right, leaving the way clear for Macron.
On coming to power, Macron passed legislation banning lawmakers and government ministers from employing family members.