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SABLE-SUR-SARTHE, France – An upstanding family man, untainted by scandal, a committed Catholic from rural western France — Francois Fillon won the conservative presidential primary and shot to the top of opinion polls in large part on his irreproachable reputation. In just over a week, his chances of winning France's presidency have nosedived amid a string of allegations that he's not what he painted himself to be.
Accusations that his wife and children earned nearly $1 million in taxpayer-funded salaries for fake jobs are throwing the entire presidential race into disarray — and threatening to bring a half century of left-right politics down with it. As Fillon stumbles less than three months before France's election, nationalist Marine Le Pen and maverick independent Emmanuel Macron stand to gain.
Support for Fillon is even faltering in his political fiefdom in western France. His die-hard fans are crying "witch hunt," but more and more residents of Sable-sur-Sarthe feel betrayed, their dreams dashed.
"He was the incarnation of the kind of politician that we wished to vote for ... anti-bling, serious, keeps his promises," said retired law professor Jean-Dominique Bunel.
When he volunteered in voting stations for the recent primaries, Bunel said Fillon had 98-99 percent of the vote. "We were even afraid he'd have 100 percent," he laughed.
Now Bunel says he feels like an "orphan," with nowhere to turn for political leadership.
No one in Sable-sur-Sarthe denies that Fillon was good to their town and the region, bringing them investment, jobs, a high-speed train line.
Over decades as mayor and then lawmaker representing the Sarthe region, he sat in the bar on the town's central plaza, and wouldn't accept free coffee. He chatted with shopowners on the cobblestoned main commercial thoroughfare. His Welsh-born wife Penelope sees neighbors at Mass, and occasionally comes to shop in her rubber boots after working in the garden of their manor.
As prime minister from 2007-2012 under attention-seeking, unpredictable President Nicolas Sarkozy, Fillon formed a perfect counterpoint — low-key and reliable. Pollsters say that image played a big part in Fillon's appeal in the conservative primary. He beat out Sarkozy for the nomination, repeatedly targeting his former boss for his legal problems: "It is pointless to speak of authority if you yourself are not irreproachable," Fillon said during a campaign meeting in August in Sable-sur-Sarthe.
That's why its residents feel so betrayed.
"We are asking ourselves who is the real Francois Fillon," said Gerard Fretilliere, a left-wing city councilman who admired Fillon's contribution to the region despite coming from the other side of the political spectrum.
"He led his whole campaign saying 'I have nothing to be reproached for. I'm not like the others,'" Fretilliere said. "And then, boom, we discover that he was hiding things. And for him, that's devastating."
Equally shocking to many voters is that the running theme in Fillon's prime ministerial career and presidential campaign has been cutting back on government spending, from raising the retirement age to austerity measures in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. A key campaign promise this year: to slash half a million public-sector jobs.
One after another, onetime Fillon supporters passing by Sable-sur-Sarthe's Town Hall on Thursday expressed surprise and dismay that Penelope — known for taking full-time care of the family manor and raising five children — had a highly paid parliamentary job that no one knew about.
Some residents, however, refuse to abandon Fillon, suspicious of why the accusations are coming so hard and so fast.
"I can only say good things about him," said Ghislaine Vincent, 82, who's still pinning her hopes on Fillon "to make France rise again."
"I don't understand how it's possible to pursue someone this way," she said. "They're jumping on him like vicious animals."
In the tiny adjacent town of Solesmes, home to the Fillon family manor, pig farmers appreciative of Fillon's largesse to the region proudly protect the family's privacy. The elegant manor and its extensive grounds overlook the Sarthe River, tucked away off a country road dotted with well-kept homes.
Fillon grew up in the region, a boy scout from a bourgeois family but with a somewhat turbulent adolescence. A former classmate said he was pulled out of an exclusive Catholic middle school for having a tear gas bomb in class, then sent to a boarding school run by Jesuits — and was later suspended from there for organizing a protest against his English teacher.
After law school, Fillon started as a parliamentary aide in 1976 and became the youngest member of Parliament when elected to office in 1981 to represent the Sarthe.
His troubles today put the conservative Republicans party — which has for years been expecting to take back the Elysee Palace in 2017 from deeply unpopular Socialist President Francois Hollande — in a serious bind. If he is forced to withdraw from the race, there is no clear Plan B.
That puts his voters in a bind, too.
"I can wait and pray for someone who corresponds more or less to my opinions," said Bunel, a longtime conservative disillusioned by Fillon's Republicans party.
"We must avoid the catastrophe" of an intolerant, far right Le Pen presidency, he said. He has no new preference yet, but acknowledged, "the world won't collapse if it's Macron, or even a leftist."
As new reports of questionable financial activity have piled up, polls have shown shrinking support for Fillon and a notable rise for Macron.
Fillon, his wife and two of their five children are under a preliminary probe by France's national financial prosecutors for suspicions of embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds, prompted by reports by investigative weekly Le Canard Enchaine. He denies wrongdoing and says he is the victim of a slander campaign.