Pressure Mounts for Juppe to Replace Fillon in French Presidential Race

Francois Fillon, former French prime minister and 2017 presidential election candidate, delivers a speech at a campaign rally in Aubervilliers, March 4. Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

A senior politician from embattled French presidential candidate Francois Fillon's conservative camp said on Sunday that several party heavyweights were about to issue a statement calling for former prime minister Alain Juppe to replace him.

Once the frontrunner, Fillon is mired in a scandal over his wife's pay, and his campaign has been in serious trouble since he learned last week that he could be placed under formal investigation for misuse of public funds.

He is under growing pressure as party leaders prepare a crisis meeting for Monday to discuss the situation ahead of a March 17 deadline when all presidential candidates must be formally endorsed by at least 500 elected officials.

After a string of resignations among advisers and backers, the 63-year-old Fillon is banking on a rally of supporters in Paris on Sunday to show his detractors that he remains their best hope to win the presidency.

"In the coming hours, we will propose an initiative," Christian Estrosi, a close ally of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, told BFM TV, which he said would take the form of a statement from himself and other party heavyweights.

"We do not have the time to debate who has the most talent... The easiest thing obviously ... is the person who came second in the primaries and that quite simply is Alain Juppe."

Jean Leonetti, a pro-Juppe lawmaker in the conservative Republicans party said Sarkozy and Juppe had spoken about the situation on Saturday night and Juppe had probably outlined his conditions for replacing Fillon.

"The first is that Fillon supports it ... and the second is that everyone stands behind Juppe and that there are no hidden agendas," Leonetti told Reuters.

'Speak to the French'

Fillon, who was set to attend his supporters' rally in central Paris, announced on Twitter that he would appear on France 2 television's Sunday evening news.

A member of his staff said he wanted to "speak to the French."

Jean-Christophe Lagarde, head of the centre-right UDI party, which has an alliance with the Republicans, warned that sticking with Fillon would lead to "certain failure" and called on Juppe, who lost to Fillon in the November party primary, to step in.

"In the Olympics when the gold medal winner is disqualified then it's the silver medal holder that takes over," Lagarde said on Europe 1 radio.

Opinion polls continue to show Fillon would fail to make the second round of the April/May election. Instead, centrist Emmanuel Macron is consolidating his position as favorite to win a second-round head-to-head against far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen.

Fillon has denied any wrongdoing and complained of judicial and media bias that amounted to a "political assassination."

His attack on the judiciary in particular has caused unease within his ranks and Sunday's demonstration has worried some on the right that it will be hijacked by hardline conservative movements.

His backers are hoping to get at least 45,000 people at today's rally to show he still has support among the grassroots.

"I think that campaign against Fillon is absolutely scandalous," said Annette Dore, 62, a former scientific publisher from Paris as thousands of supporters waving tricolore flags awaited Fillon.

"Why reproach him when he was about to win the election. It's so dishonest," she said, labeling Juppe a socialist.

Despite the mounting pressure to quit the race, Fillon remained defiant on Sunday morning.

"We shall show the strength of popular will," he said in a post on Twitter ahead of the rally. "Hold firm! France deserves our courage!"

However, an Ifop poll published on Saturday showed that more than 70 percent of French voters want him to drop out. Support from his camp has also fallen to 53 percent from 70 percent two weeks ago.

The same survey also suggested that Juppe was the best placed to step in. A poll on Friday showed that Juppe would win the April 23 first round, although the current mayor of Bordeaux has until now ruled out a comeback.