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French president denounces rival's claims of dirty tricks

Associated Press logo Associated Press 24/03/2017 By ANGELA CHARLTON, Associated Press
FILE - In this Feb. 22, 2017 file photo, French President Francois Hollande, left ,talks with Francois Fillon, the conservative candidate for the French presidential elections, during the annual dinner of the Representative Council of France's Jewish Associations (CRIF) in Paris. Hollande is vigorously denouncing suggestions by conservative presidential hopeful Fillon that Hollande has a "cabinet noir" to discredit political rivals. (Christophe Petit Tesson/ Pool via AP, File) © The Associated Press FILE - In this Feb. 22, 2017 file photo, French President Francois Hollande, left ,talks with Francois Fillon, the conservative candidate for the French presidential elections, during the annual dinner of the Representative Council of France's Jewish Associations (CRIF) in Paris. Hollande is vigorously denouncing suggestions by conservative presidential hopeful Fillon that Hollande has a "cabinet noir" to discredit political rivals. (Christophe Petit Tesson/ Pool via AP, File)

PARIS — French President Francois Hollande on Friday vigorously denounced suggestions by the conservative presidential hopeful that Hollande is trying to discredit political rivals behind the scenes by using dirty tricks.

The clash between the Socialist Hollande and the right-wing Francois Fillon threatens to further stain the French presidential campaign, already tainted by corruption scandals and voter frustration with the political establishment.

It has also drawn comparisons to President Donald Trump's accusations of wiretapping by predecessor Barack Obama, and Trump's attacks on the U.S. judicial system.

Fillon, whose presidential bid is flailing because of a href='https://apnews.com/032fb8f74ecf4ea9a401a9baed4080bc/French-prosecutors-extend-Fillon's-probe-to-suspected-fraud'corruption charges/a, told France-2 television Thursday night that he wants an investigation into suggestions in an upcoming book that Hollande intervenes in legal cases for political reasons.

"I am going to accuse the president of the republic," Fillon said. "If we are looking for a cabinet noir, we found the cabinet noir," referring to an alleged secret bureau tasked with damaging political rivals.

"Tonight, I solemnly ask that there is an investigation opened on the allegations raised in this book, because this is a scandal of state," he continued.

Hollande, who is not seeking re-election, responded by saying he "condemns these false allegations with the greatest firmness." He insisted he had never intervened in any judicial procedure, including the recent investigation into accusations that Fillon employed family members for years for parliamentary jobs they never performed.

"There is a dignity, a responsibility that needs to be respected. I think that Mr. Fillon is beyond that," Hollande told France-Bleu radio Friday.

Asked if there is a "cabinet noir," Hollande said, "There is an administration, fortunately, that functions. But it is not for us to meddle in judicial affairs. And my position has always been for the independence of the justice system, the respect for the presumption of innocence, and to never interfere."

The book, "Welcome to the Place Beauvau" asserts that Hollande profited from a network of allies in France's intelligence and financial agencies and a "complex mechanism to orchestrate judicial" probes targeting prominent conservatives.

However, its authors say that Fillon oversimplified their findings — and the book itself says "it is impossible to provide formal proof" of such a secret bureau.

Hollande's predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, was accused of similar secret interference in legal cases for political ends.

Fillon, prime minister during Sarkozy's presidency, was once the front-runner in France's two-round presidential election on April 23 and May 7, but has seen his popularity sink since the jobs investigation opened.

Fillon, who is facing preliminary charges, denies wrongdoing and says the case against him is a smear campaign.

Former lawmaker Marc Joulaud, who employed Fillon's wife as his aide from 2002 to 2007, on Friday was handed preliminary charges for embezzlement of public funds, a source close to the investigation said. The source was not allowed to speak publicly on an ongoing probe.

Investigators are trying to determine whether Penelope Fillon's work as Joulaud's aide was a fictitious job.

Voters appear fed up with both Fillon's conservatives and Hollande's Socialists. For the first time in generations, neither party is likely to win the presidency this year.

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Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to the story.

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