PARIS: French conservative presidential candidate Francois Fillon on Sunday staged a show of support to bolster his flagging campaign before bluntly rejecting demands from within his party to quit over an expenses scandal.
After holding a flag-waving rally in Paris with the Eiffel Tower as a backdrop, Fillon defiantly said he would pursue his campaign, even as rumours spread of plans to dethrone him as his party’s candidate.
Asked in a TV interview whether he would quit, Fillon said: “My answer is ‘no’. Above all else, I see no reason to do so.”
“No-one today can prevent me being a candidate,” he said.
Senior members of Fillon’s Republicans party have called for the 63-year-old to step aside as he is to be charged over allegations he gave his wife a taxpayer-funded fake job.
Fillon had previously promised to quit if he were charged but has since pulled back from the pledge.
He portrays himself as a victim of injustice who intends to put his case directly to the people.
The party leadership is to meet Monday evening to discuss Fillon’s candidacy, but he dismissed suggestions they could remove him.
“Withdrawing my candidacy would lead to a political impasse for the right and the centre,” Fillon said.
Fillon was the frontrunner in the race until Le Canard Enchaine newspaper alleged in mid-January that he paid his wife Penelope and two of their children nearly 900,000 euros ($950,000) as his parliamentary assistants.
A new poll released Sunday confirmed he was losing support fast and would be eliminated in the first round of the election on April 23.
Most surveys show far-right leader Marine Le Pen and 39-year-old centrist Emmanuel Macron would progress to the runoff on May 7.
Waiting in wings
Earlier Sunday, Fillon gave a speech to tricolour-waving supporters at the Trocadero Square on the opposite bank of the Seine to the Eiffel Tower.
He apologised for the expenses scandal but said he was sure he would be proved innocent.
His team claimed 200,000 people attended the rally but AFP reporters put the turnout in the tens of thousands. Police said the maximum capacity of the square was about 40,000.
Alain Juppe, a 71-year-old former prime minister, indicated to AFP on Friday through his entourage that he could be ready to replace Fillon as the rightwing candidate.
Juppe tweeted on Sunday that he would make a statement at 0930 GMT on Monday in the southwestern city of Bordeaux, where he is mayor.
The same Kantar Sofres OnePoint poll released Sunday showed Juppe would qualify for the second round if he ran in Fillon’s place. The survey of 1,027 people was carried out on March 2-4 and therefore before Fillon’s Paris speech.
A replacement would have to be named before a fast-approaching March 17 deadline to collect the 500 signatures from elected officials that a candidate needs in order to stand.
Despite Fillon’s defiance, there were fresh calls for him to stand aside.
Christian Estrosi, who leads the southern region around Marseille, said he and two other senior rightwingers would meet Fillon on Monday to urge him to “withdraw graciously”. Key members of Fillon’s team have already abandoned ship.
In the TV interview, he again alleged the fake jobs probe is politically motivated.
“Of course it is aimed at stopping me being a candidate,” Fillon said, complaining that rumours had even circulated that his wife had tried to commit suicide over the scandal.
British-born Penelope Fillon broke her silence earlier Sunday, telling Le Journal du Dimanche she had carried out “a lot of different tasks” for her husband during his lengthy career.
She had also urged him to “keep going to the end” but said only he could make the final decision.
Police raided the Fillons’ country manor house near Le Mans on Friday and their Paris apartment was searched a day earlier.
Fillon, a devout Catholic and a former premier, beat Juppe in the Republicans’ primary in November, pulling off a surprise victory by campaigning as a “clean” candidate.
He has pledged to slash 500,000 civil servants’ jobs but the allegations about his expenses have led to barbs that his moral authority has been undermined.
Juppe, who is more centrist than Fillon, was given a suspended jail sentence in 2004 over a party funding scandal.
The accusations against Fillon have added to an already unpredictable race.
Le Pen, 48, campaigning on an anti-immigration and anti-EU platform, has sought to capitalise on the anti-establishment sentiment that propelled US President Donald Trump to power and led to Britain’s vote to leave the EU.
Polls currently show however that Le Pen would be beaten in the runoff by either Macron or the conservative candidate. AFP