Fillon's French presidential bid gets fillip after replacement rules himself out

Francois Fillon, former French prime minister, member of the Republicans political party and 2017 presidential election candidate of the French centre-right reacts after delivering a speech in front of small business leaders. Photograph:( Reuters )

AFP Paris, France Mar 06, 2017, 07.31 PM (IST)

Beleaguered France's Republicans candidate Francois Fillon received a shot in the arm after his likely replacement ruled himself out, citing that the elections were merely weeks away for him to mobilise an election campaign.

Former prime minister Alain Juppe, who is popular with the voters, said Monday: "I confirm for a final time that I will not be a candidate to be president of the republic."

Francois Fillon was once the favourite to be the next president but his campaign got embroiled in the ugly "fake job" scandal.

Fillon has been accused of paying thousands of euros to his British-born wife Penelope for performing a fake parliamentary job.

But Juppe's withdrawal from a potential presidential campaign has almost calcified Fillon's status as the Republicans torchbearer in the upcoming French runoffs.

Juppe's statement emboldened Fillon to ask his party to rally around him.

"It is time for everybody to get their act together and come back to their senses," he told senior party members gathered to discuss the crisis, according to a text.

Fillon has been excoriated by his party members and some 250 insiders had called for his head as chances of even progressing to the second round of the presidential bid are bleak now. 

Party leaders met for crisis talks on Monday evening, with allies of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy still pushing Fillon to step aside and name a replacement.

"He's got some breathing space but he needs to ask himself if he can still win the presidential election," one lawmaker known to be close to Sarkozy told AFP on condition of anonymity. 

But later, the party said it would support Fillon's presidential campaign.

"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.

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.

(WION with inputs from agencies)