French Presidential Hopeful Francois Fillon Faces Chaos After MPs Call on Him to Quit the Race

Sad Francois Fillon 2017
François Fillon, former presidential candidate of the French center-right, in Paris, January 31. Fillon's Republicans party has launched an anti-National Front website. Christian Hartmann/REUTERS

Pressure on French presidential candidate François Fillon to quit the race mounted on Thursday as some lawmakers in his own camp urged him to drop his scandal-tainted bid in order to save the conservatives from defeat.

With opinion polls showing the conservatives that their candidate may be fatally damaged, some senior members of The Republicans urged him to pull out now to give the party time to find a good replacement.

Fillon, 62, denied wrongdoing after Le Canard Enchainé newspaper reported the former prime minister had paid his wife hundreds of thousands of euros for work she may not have done.

Falling poll ratings since then will benefit far-right leader Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker running as an independent. A poll of voting intentions showed the Socialist candidate, Benoit Hamon, also increased his share.

"I think our candidate must stop," Alain Houpert, a senator close to Fillon's former rival for the conservative ticket, Nicolas Sarkozy, told Public Sénat television on Wednesday.

France 2 television said it would broadcast later on Thursday extracts of a 2007 interview of Fillon's Welsh-born wife Penelope telling British media that she had never worked as his assistant.

French financial investigators are also widening their probe to include two of the Fillons' children, a source told Reuters.

Fillon himself pressed on with campaigning in the Ardennes region in northern France, telling journalists that he would concentrate on "questions which are of interest to France."

"I feel like someone who is being attacked unjustly on all sides. But I am ready to defend myself," he said when a few cries of "Resign!" rang out from a crowd.

French lawmakers are allowed to employ family members, but the suggestion Penelope Fillon did no real work has damaged Fillon's image, and could yet put him in court.

Fillon has said the work was genuine and will not stand down unless put under formal investigation. He held an emergency meeting with party grandees on Wednesday in which he urged them to stick by him for another two weeks—the time he estimated a preliminary investigation would take to run its course.

But some appeared unwilling to give him that much time after one poll showed the hitherto favourite would be eliminated in the first round of the election on April 23.

Another survey showed 69 percent of people wanted Fillon to drop his bid.

"We need to change tactics, strategy," lawmaker Georges Fenech told RTL radio on Thursday. "We're like the orchestra on the Titanic as it sinks," he said in an earlier comment.

Another legislator, Philippe Gosselin, called on former prime minister Alain Juppé, whom Fillon beat in a runoff for the party nomination, to think of stepping in as an alternative.

But in the right-leaning newspaper Le Figaro, party stalwarts such as former candidates Bruno Le Maire and Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet offered Fillon their "total support."

Aside from Juppé, other names being mentioned are François Baroin, a former finance minister, Valérie Pécresse, who heads the prosperous Ile de France region around Paris, and Xavier Bertrand who won a notable victory against Le Pen in regional elections in 2015.

The scandal has heightened investor concerns that National Front leader Le Pen could win and take France out of the euro and the European Union.

Opinion polls routinely show Le Pen making it through to a second round, but being soundly defeated in the runoff vote by any candidate—be it Fillon or the centrist Macron.

The uncertainty has increased state borrowing costs, with the spread over German bond yields rising to an almost two-year high.

France sold €7 billion worth of bonds ($7.56 billion) in an auction on Thursday at yields about 30 basis points higher than at sales in December and January.