Francois Fillon sought to save his bid for the French presidency in an hour-long press conference in which he set out extensive details of his family's finances and offered an apology to voters as evidence of his probity.

Almost two weeks after the first report that the Republican candidate had employed his wife as a parliamentary assistant, he stated clearly that she took a salary for that job over the course of 15 years and that his children also worked for him for shorter periods.

The former Prime Minister emphasised that the practice is entirely legal, while adding that he understood the outrage of many voters.

"Where does it leave me morally speaking? I must face up to myself and in reality also to the French people," Fillon said. "What was acceptable yesterday is no longer acceptable today. It was an error. I regret it profoundly and I apologise to the French people."

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With less than three months to go until the first round of voting, the former front-runner is trying to halt a slide in the polls and stamp out suggestions that he will be forced to drop out of the race. Fillon, 62, said he would be consulting with his party and hitting the campaign trail to defend his programme of economic reform in coming days against the opposition of National Front leader Marine Le Pen and independent Emmanuel Macron.

"He bet everything - he was clearly repentant and accepted blame: he apologised, which is very rare for a politician," Frederic Dabi, who co-heads opinion poll Paris-based Ifop said. "He said a new campaign is starting. We will in the next 48 hours if voters are following him."

The French finance prosecutor said that the Fillon investigation continues, adding that "it would be hazardous to presuppose the outcome".

Questions about his personal ethics have proved especially damaging for Fillon because he won his shock victory in November's primary by insisting that a candidate for president must have unquestioned integrity. As about a third of his support evaporated in opinion polls, he faced calls from some within his party to step aside and let another candidate pick up the baton.

Socialist nominee Benoit Hamon lashed out against Fillon, according to AFP.

"He is choosing the worst strategy by persisting in denial, it's a bad mistake," he said. "It shows Fillon doesn't understand there's a form of impunity that appears abnormal to the French people."

Fillon himself appealed to the primary voters again as he challenged his party critics to test their authority against his.

"I am not the candidate of a party - no organisation has the legitimacy to put the primary vote into question," he said. "A majority of French voters on the right want me to take forward my plans for a rupture with the past into the fight against Le Pen. I am candidate for the presidential election and I'm a candidate to win it."

"It was quite risky," said Pierre Lefebure, a teacher in political communication at Paris 13 university. "If it works, he's back in the saddle. If it fails, he'll keep crumbling. The next 24 to 48 hours will tell."

Having been the favorite in mid-January, Fillon has now slipped into third place. For the first round, he has the support of 18.5 per cent of voters, compared with 25.5 per cent for Le Pen and 20.5 per cent for Macron, according to Ifop's daily rolling poll today. Like all other pollsters, Ifop sees Le Pen losing in the second round.

- Bloomberg