PARIS: France’s embattled presidential hopeful Francois Fillon on Monday won “unanimous” support from his Republicans party, putting him firmly back in the driver’s seat after veteran conservative Alain Juppe rejected calls to stand in his place.
“The political committee, after a wide-ranging exchange, unanimously renewed its support for Francois Fillon,” Senate speaker Gerard Larcher told reporters after around 20 party seniors met to “evaluate” the crisis sparked by the fake jobs scandal clouding Fillon’s campaign.
Fillon, 63, had told the meeting that Juppe’s definitive decision not to run “confirmed that there isn’t a plan B” to his candidacy, according to a text of his remarks sent to Agence France-Presse.
With just seven weeks to go before the country goes to the polls in a two-stage vote, Fillon said: “We have lost too much time with vain debates, leaving the way open for the far right and candidates on the left who are rubbing their hands over our disunity.”
In a sombre statement earlier Monday, Juppe, 71, said he would not stand in for Fillon, whom he criticised for his defiance of the justice system and swipes at the media.
He also said France was “sick” and suffering from a “profound crisis of confidence.”
Polls suggested Juppe would be more popular with voters, but the centrist is considered too soft on immigration and other social issues for many of Fillon’s supporters on the right flank of the party.
Juppe’s decision removes a major rival for Fillon, who is sticking with his bid for power despite the prospect of criminal charges later this month as well as mounting criticism within the party and falling poll numbers.
Fillon was once the favorite to be France’s next leader but his campaign is mired in accusations he used public funds to pay his wife hundreds of thousands of euros for fake parliamentary jobs.
Insisting that his is “the only legitimate” candidacy, Fillon said “our voters will not forgive those who maintain the poison of division.”
On Sunday, Fillon was buoyed by a rally of tens of thousands of supporters in Paris.
But earlier on Monday allies of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy were still pushing Fillon to step aside and name a replacement.
The infighting among Republicans and Fillon’s chaotic campaign have made an already unpredictable election even harder to call.
The disarray appears to have benefited centrist, pro-business candidate Emmanuel Macron in particular, as well as far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who are shown in polls to be the likely top two candidates in the first round of voting on April 23.
Polls suggest 39-year-old Macron would beat Le Pen in the decisive second round on May 7 – but after Donald Trump’s victory and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, analysts caution against bold predictions.