Embattled Republican French presidential candidate Francois Fillon has enraged social media and social society by repeating in a nightmare interview that he is "not autistic" when pressed to explain why he has remained in the race to the Elysee palace.

Speaking on France 2, Fillon, who has faced repeated calls to stand down after he was placed under formal investigation over the misuse of public funds, told his interviewer: "I'm not autistic, I can see the difficulties," and went on to repeat the gaffe two more times. "I must gather my [political] family, that's obviously what I tell you I'm not autistic," he said, adding finally: "I did not shut up, I'm not autistic."

The pressure group SOS Autism has criticised the candidate's comments saying in a statement they were "intolerable. We are not censors but this kind of statement undermines the work of awareness and prevention that we do every day," the group's president Olivia Cattan said.

Twitter has been less measured in its response to the floundering Fillon. One user, Philppe Gireaud, a father of three and a competitive sailor wrote on the social media site: "My son is autistic. He is not deaf, nor dead, nor blind Mr. Fillon."

Teenager Mathilde from Lyon wrote: "F.Fillon 'I'm not autistic, ...' people with autism and their relatives of thank you for this disrespect."

France's secretary of state for disability also weighed in on the social media debate. She said Fillon had caused "great offence" with his comments.