FORMER French prime minister Alain Juppé was poised to replace Francois Fillon yesterday as investigators searched the home of the scandal-hit centre-right presidential candidate and allies deserted him.
Sources close to Mr Juppe, who had previously ruled out being a "plan B", told 'Liberation' newspaper he had reconsidered because of the deepening crisis in the Republicains party provoked by Mr Fillon's refusal to stand aside.
A day after Mr Fillon revealed that judges will place him under formal investigation later this month over allegations that he illegally employed his British wife and children at taxpayers' expense, detectives searched his home in the capital's elegant 7th arrondissement.
His presidential bid appeared close to collapse as more than 20 centre-right MPs and councillors publicly withdrew support for him and key members of his campaign team quit.
About 20 mayors also urged him to stand aside in favour of another candidate better placed to regain the Élysée Palace.
Allies of Mr Juppé, who came second to Mr Fillon in the primaries, said he was "ready but loyal" and would only step in if asked to do so by the beleaguered candidate.
With an opinion poll indicating that three-quarters of voters would prefer Mr Fillon to withdraw, senior figures in his party fear that he will be knocked out in the first round of voting at the end of next month.
Polls suggest that would leave Marine Le Pen, the Front National leader, to face Emmanuel Macron, an independent centrist, in a second-round showdown.
Still defiant, Mr Fillon responded that his "support base is holding" as he addressed a rally of 3,000 supporters in the southern city of Nimes last night. "You see before you a fighter," he declared. "I will never give up."
Mr Juppé had previously been blocked from seeking to take over by Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president.
Mr Sarkozy yesterday appeared to suspend his objections. His ally, the MP Georges Fenech, said he was now supporting Mr Juppé because he could not accept "his political family being taken hostage".
The Republicains party was thrown into chaos after Mr Fillon vowed to fight on until the election in less than two months. In a defiant speech on Wednesday, he attacked the justice system for seeking his "political assassination".
Some of Mr Fillon's supporters were alarmed by his plan to hold a rally in Paris on Sunday to protest against "the coup d'etat by the judges".
President François Hollande warned him not to turn his meetings into demonstrations against the judiciary.
Mr Macron announced a full manifesto yesterday while Ms Le Pen gave a speech on "intelligent protectionism", calling for the nationalisation of France's public debt. "Everywhere, from Donald Trump's America, to Narendra Modi's India, from Xi Jinping's China to Theresa May's United Kingdom, economic patriotism is prevailing," she said.
One of the first opinion polls partly taken after Mr Fillon's legal woes deepened on Wednesday - when adviser Bruno Le Maire quit his campaign - showed his support dipping below 20pc for the first time in a week.