France's mainstream right enacted a spectacular U-turn last night by unanimously backing its scandal-struck presidential candidate François Fillon and declaring a bitter battle to replace him "now closed".
The 'coup de theatre' came after a crisis meeting of top members of the conservative Les Republicains party, many of whom had been piling pressure on Mr Fillon to step down over allegations that he had misused public funds to pay his wife hundreds of thousands of euros for a job she did not do.
It came hours after the man tipped to replace Mr Fillon, former prime minister Alain Juppé, ruled himself out and former president Nicolas Sarkozy stepped in to try to save the French right from implosion.
After yesterday's crisis meeting, French Senate leader Gerard Larcher insisted that the internal challenge to replace Mr Fillon was now "closed". "After a wide debate, the 'politicard' committee unanimously renewed its support and confidence in François Fillon," he said.
During the meeting, Mr Fillon had once again ruled out stepping down, telling senior party members there was "no plan B". "It is time for everybody to get their act together and come back to their senses," he said. It came after Mr Sarkozy stepped in to propose a three-way meeting between himself, Mr Fillon and Mr Juppé, to find a "dignified and credible way out" of the crisis.
However, Mr Fillon's former centrist UDI allies last night said they would restore support to the Republicains only if a new candidate was chosen. Georges Fenech, a former Juppé supporter, said Mr Fillon should be allowed to carry on, but only if another right-winger joined the race.
Mr Juppé gave a bitter assessment of the French right. He accused Mr Fillon of having a "boulevard before him" after the party primaries only to lead his political family into an electoral dead end over corruption allegations. He offered no backing to the "obstinate" Mr Fillon or any other potential right-wing replacement.
Mr Fillon denies allegations his wife Penelope did little work for being paid around €900,000 in parliamentary funds, but suffered a serious blow last week when he learned he could face a formal investigation.
During a drama-filled weekend Mr Fillon delivered a defiant speech to thousands of grassroots supporters in central Paris telling them that they would not be robbed of victory.
Yesterday he told party members that the tens of thousands who showed up to support him were proof he could yet confound the polls, which currently predict him being knocked out in round one of the election on April 23. They predict centrist Emmanuel Macron will beat far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the May 7 runoff. (© Daily Telegraph London)