Can Fillon ride out the scandal or is his candidacy doomed?
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As Francois Fillon soldiers on in his campaign for the French presidency despite a crippling fake jobs scandal, the jury is out over how long the conservative candidate can stay afloat.
Defections from his camp began soon after a defiant speech on Wednesday when the 62-year-old said he would “not surrender” and on Thursday calls grew for his rival Alain Juppe to take his place.
Juppe, 71, like Fillon a former prime minister, was the runner-up in a primary organised by the Republicans party in November.
Another former rightwing prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, warned that Fillon was dragging his camp into an “abyss”.
Writing in the conservative daily Le Figaro, he said: “Going down this dead-end street is taking the state, our faith in democracy and its fellow travellers hostage.”
The left-leaning weekly L’Obs, under the simple headline “Fillon’s Suicide”, likened being at his speech on Wednesday to attending a funeral, wondering out loud why the rightwing Republicans party continued to support the “Fillon millstone”.
Members of Fillon’s campaign “couldn’t even look” at him, it said, describing them as “paralysed... by the spectacle that their moribund candidate has imposed on them.”
To add to Fillon’s woes, police raided his Paris home, informed sources said late Thursday.
Rightwing lawmaker and former magistrate Georges Fenech was also among those calling for a switch to Juppe as “the only one today, with his experience, to be able to take up the torch”.
Deserters included Fillon’s spokesman Benoist Apparu, who was Juppe’s mouthpiece before the November primary.
The left-wing daily Liberation is keeping a running tally of the defectors, with the list reaching 63 by late afternoon Thursday.
Fillon, ever defiant, insisted that his “base is holding” with polls showing him still only four or five points behind the election leaders centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
France goes to the polls for the two-stage election on April 23 and May 7.
Speaking at a campaign event Thursday in the Provencal city of Nimes, he said: “The French people back me.”
But in a Harris poll conducted Thursday, only one in four respondents said they thought Fillon should stay in the race.
Fillon, claiming he was the target of a “political assassination”, vowed at a hastily convened news conference Wednesday: “I won’t give in, I won’t surrender and I won’t withdraw.”
Fillon “has opted for a go-for-broke strategy and it’s too late to turn back,” political scientist Martial Foucault told AFP.
‘Like a sect’
A member of Fillon’s Republicans party told AFP on condition of anonymity that his supporters had become “like a sect” and predicted that his campaign would collapse in “24 to 48 hours”.
But Bruno Retailleau, the Republicans’ group leader in the Senate, angrily denied “any sort of fanaticism” among Fillon’s supporters, saying they were driven by a sense of “duty”.
Analysts say Fillon is benefiting from the split between party supporters and defectors by becoming the “default” candidate.
Although Fillon’s poll numbers have largely recovered since revelations in late January that he placed his wife on the public payroll with scant work to show for it, he has fallen behind Macron.
A new voter survey out Thursday showed Macron scoring 24 percent, ahead of Fillon’s 19 percent in the first round of the election.
Le Pen, 48, leads the pack as she has consistently since mid-January with 27 percent.
But polls currently show that in the runoff, Macron would go on to easily defeat Le Pen.
In practical terms, time is running out because candidates face a March 17 deadline to present a required 500 signatures of elected officials who agree to sponsor them.
While French law does not bar a candidate who is facing criminal charges to stand for office, Fillon has also faced criticism after he questioned the justice system’s impartiality.
On Wednesday, he again said the investigation had been directed against him and that “the presumption of innocence has entirely and completely disappeared.”
Outgoing Socialist President Francois Hollande weighed in over the remarks, saying: “Running for president doesn’t give you the right to cast suspicion on the work of the police and judges.”