, PARIS, Mar 7- 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 AFP.
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 favourite 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 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.
– Juppe bows out –
Juppe, now the mayor of Bordeaux, on Monday voiced dismay over the state of the election campaign.
“Never under the fifth republic have we had an election in such confused conditions,” Juppe said, stressing the dangers of National Front leader Le Pen’s “anti-European fanaticism” and Macron’s “political immaturity”.
Fillon’s defiance and accusations that the government, justice system and media were plotting against him have “led him into a dead-end”, Juppe added in one of several criticisms of his colleague.
Both Le Pen and Macron — one a far-right anti-establishment figure, the other an independent who founded a new political movement last year — have tapped into widespread anger at France’s political class.
“French people want a profound renewal of their politics,” Juppe, a veteran politician who himself has a conviction over a party finance scandal, told a press conference in Bordeaux.
“Evidently I do not embody this renewal,” he added.
National Front vice-president Florian Philippot said Monday that many French people who were thinking of voting Fillon would now opt for Le Pen.
“They want a free, safe and prosperous France, not a France that is subjected to the most brutal winds of globalisation,” he told LCI television.
Current President Francois Hollande also warned in an interview published Monday that the threat of a Le Pen presidency was real but that he would fight to prevent it happening.
– Fillon to meet Sarkozy, Juppe –
Fillon, a devout Catholic, beat Juppe in the Republicans’ primary in November, pulling off a surprise victory by campaigning as a “clean” candidate.
He was the frontrunner in the presidential race until Le Canard Enchaine newspaper revealed in late January that he had paid his wife Penelope and two of their children nearly 900,000 euros ($950,000) as his parliamentary assistants.
Participants in Monday’s crisis meeting said Fillon agreed to meet with Sarkozy and Juppe to discuss strategy. But he was quoted as saying: “It has to be quick. We can’t let the scandal last forever.”
Sarkozy had suggested the meeting early Monday, saying that “in view of the gravity of the situation… everyone has the duty to do all that can be done to safeguard unity.”