PARIS: Friends and detractors of Francois Fillon sought to bridge their deep divisions and put the French conservative candidate’s presidential campaign back on the rails on Tuesday after deciding to stick with him despite a damaging financial scandal.
A member of Fillon’s team said reconciliation talks would begin with discontented centrists of the UDI party, who announced last week that they were withdrawing support for Fillon and his party, The Republicans.
Others members of his campaign team went on radio to deliver a call for unity, saying victory was still feasible.
“The page has turned,” Bruno Retailleau, Fillon’s campaign coordinator, told Radio Classique.
Fillon, at one point the favourite, has sunk to third place in opinion polls as he faces an investigation into allegations he paid his wife Penelope hundreds of thousands of euros of public funds for doing very little work as his parliamentary assistant. He denies wrongdoing.
The former prime minister now faces the prospect of being knocked out in the first round on April 23, leaving independent centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen to contest a run-off two weeks later.
Investors have been unsettled by the possibility of a win for Le Pen, who wants to take France out of the Eurozone.
Media reports said that the handful of key party members who thrashed out the deal to rally behind Fillon on Monday secured a pledge that he would temper his ultra-conservative strategy and accommodate centrists by working closely with a more moderate member of his party, Francois Baroin, a former finance minister.
Retailleau declined to say whether the stick-with-Fillon deal had conditions.
In legal terms The Republicans have no way to stop Fillon from standing despite the damage his campaign has suffered from the scandal, which has prompted some key aides to resign.
France’s constitutional court on Monday issued a reminder that once a candidate has registered the necessary sponsors, only he or she has the power to withdraw.
With those sponsors already in place, the 63-year-old Fillon can run come what may, even though his party could select a new candidate to run against him.
Senate leader Gerard Larcher, one of the group of right-wing politicians behind Monday’s pro-Fillon announcement, called for unity, saying failure would open the doors of power to Le Pen.
“I cannot resign myself to the idea of a second round where it’s Le Pen versus Macron,” he said.
Bidding to match the anti-establishment shocks of Donald Trump’s US presidential victory and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union last year Le Pen is currently tipped in almost all polls to win the first round of the election, where she faces a fragmented field with four main rivals.
But they universally show her losing the head-to-head run-off to Macron, a former economy minister, or to Fillon if he made it that far.
A new Opinionway survey on Tuesday suggested Le Pen would win 26 per cent of the vote in the first round, versus 25 per cent for Macron and 20 per cent for Fillon. But it said Macron would beat her by a margin of 60-40 in the second round, or Fillon by 58-42 if he could edge ahead of the centrist.
UDI TALKS Republican lawmaker Luc Chatel said consolidating Fillon’s position would involve winning back the UDI centrist group which deserted him last week. The group comprises several dozen lawmakers who traditionally work in tandem with The Republicans.
“Talks will restart today,” he said.
It was not immediately clear to what extent Monday’s deal could ensure broader reconciliation, especially after a scathing critique of Fillon on Monday by Alain Juppe, one of the grandees of The Republicans who had been touted as a possible replacement but has now ruled himself out.
Fillon has upset some members of his own party by complaining the investigation against him amounts to a “political assassination” by the justice system and the media.
That prompted harsh criticism on Monday from Juppe, who said such talk had brought his campaign to a dead end.