Fillon defiant at rally but party heavyweights plotting his exit
As tens of thousands of supporters braved driving rain and wind at a make-or-break rally in Paris yesterday, the scandal-hit French presidential candidate François Fillon vowed to defy those trying to oust him.
Senior figures in his centre-right Republicans party are to hold crisis talks today in which Mr Fillon could be replaced by the man he beat in the November primaries, Alain Juppé, a former prime minister.
"They think I'm alone. They want me to be alone," Mr Fillon told the crowd opposite the Eiffel Tower. As he began speaking, the rain stopped. "Are we alone?" he demanded. "No," the crowd roared back, many waving tricolour flags. They chanted: "Hold on. France needs you."
The show of strength was an attempt to demonstrate he still commands popular support despite a corruption scandal that has hit his poll ratings. Later, in a combative interview on national television, he defended his decision to fight on.
He insisted that, despite what he called his "mistakes", 200,000 people had come from all over France to attend the rally. Police estimated the turnout at 40,000, well short of the target of 50,000 Mr Fillon's campaign team had banked on to prove public opinion was still on his side.
"The success of this demonstration shows that my legitimacy as a candidate remains very strong. I can unite [the party] for the campaign and for government. No one can prevent me now from being the candidate," he said.
He repeated that he was innocent of corruption, accusing the judiciary of meddling in the democratic process and "stealing the election" from the French people. Minutes after Mr Fillon's interview, Mr Juppé announced that he would make a statement to the French people this morning.
At the rally, Mr Fillon's Welsh wife Penelope, who was allegedly paid hundreds of thousands of euros of taxpayers' money for a job she never did, stood beside him in a rare public appearance. As the crowd chanted "Fillon president", she brandished a flag.
Christian Estrosi, the right-wing head of the Provence, Alps and Riviera region, said he and two other powerful party figures would propose a face-saving way for an alternative candidate to replace Mr Fillon "within hours".
The latest polls suggest that Mr Fillon will be eliminated in the first round of the election next month, but if Mr Juppé takes over, he is likely to win back the Elysée Palace for the conservatives. (Daily Telegraph London)