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Fillon deserters plead for Plan B, but the clock is ticking

Mehdi Fedouach, AFP | French conservative presidential candidate François Fillon and Bordeaux's mayor Alain Juppé on January 25, 2017 in Merignac.

As François Fillon clings to his troubled bid for France’s presidency, some French conservatives are appealing to his former rival Alain Juppé to stand instead. The first round is on April 23. Juppé is apparently willing.

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But becoming Plan B isn’t simply a question of will. It’s also about timing. Welcome to France’s system of parrainages.

Facing imminent criminal charges in the fake-jobs scandal that has plagued his campaign, Fillon, who turns 63 on Saturday, sunk ever deeper into a mire of recriminations this week. Police raided the Paris home the former prime minister shares with his wife Penelope on Thursday, while Fillon’s political allies continued to jump ship en masse. Friday evening France's centrist UDI party, which had backed Fillon since November, withdrew its support.

Friday also saw two key defections from the candidate's campaign. Early in the day, Fillon’s campaign spokesman, Thierry Solère, quit, a poignant resignation because Solère presided over the conservative primary Fillon won in November, a triumph to which the candidate has clung for legitimacy throughout his current tribulations. And later that evening, campaign chief Patrick Stefanini announced his resignation.

Juppé, who is also a former conservative prime minister, finished second in that primary. The 71-year-old made it known Friday that he is willing to step in, but on two conditions: “Fillon has to take the decision to pull out himself, and the rightwing and centre camps have to be united behind [Juppé]”, a source close to Juppé told Agence France-Presse.

Convicted himself over a 1990s fake-jobs scandal, Juppé was handed a 14-month suspended sentence and a year-long ban from standing for election in 2004. He famously quipped during last autumn’s primary – in a gibe directed at the time at embattled conservative rival Nicolas Sarkozy – that “in legal matters, it is better to have a past than a future”. With Fillon’s bid ostensibly hanging by a thread, Juppé may yet be proven right.

But there is also the sticky matter of France’s so-called parrainages, sponsorship pledges mailed to France’s Constitutional Council from elected officials across the country. In order to stand in France’s presidential election, a candidate must collect 500 such golden tickets. The 40,000 officials eligible to make the pledges must represent at least 30 French administrative departments, with no single department representing more than 10 percent of the total.

As the Fillon campaign’s debacle accelerated this week, a number of conservatives called on officials to register their parrainages for Juppé instead. Franck Riester, a parliamentarian who deserted Fillon on Wednesday, tweeted a photo of his parrainage form backing Juppé the following day.

“I call on all of the elected officials responsible in this country, that is to say the mayors, the regional councillors, the departmental councilors, the city councilors, to address their parrainages to the Constitutional Council for Alain Juppé,” conservative deputy Georges Fenech told France Info radio on Thursday. “He seems to me the only one who today, by dint of his experience, has the power to take up the torch,” said the parliamentarian, a member of Fillon’s Les Républicains party. “I cannot accept that my entire political family, and the whole presidential election, be taken hostage,” he added.

Deadline day

But the clock is ticking. Candidates generally begin petitioning officials for parrainage pledges well in advance of the official election campaign. The mainstream party’s prospective candidates rarely have trouble getting to 500 and even make a show of surpassing that goal by a wide margin. Underdogs’ perennial race to the 500 mark, meanwhile, carries headline-making suspense. Aspiring competitors who fall short of the goal are doomed to watch the campaign play out from the sidelines. Would-be official candidates must also file a declaration reporting their assets and tell the Constitutional Council in writing that they are willing to stand for the election.

The deadline for filing parrainages is March 17 at 6pm sharp. The Constitutional Council, charged with validating the pledges, then makes the official list of presidential candidates public within days.

The Constitutional Council updates its list of validated parrainages twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays. As of Friday, with 3,155 total parrainages validated, Fillon was the first candidate to reach the 500 mark with 1,155. Juppé, meanwhile, had only one, from Marie-Claude Jarrot, mayor of Montceau-les-Mines.

“What I want for my political family is to win. And I think we are not giving ourselves every opportunity,” Jarrot told AFP. “It would be too stupid if Alain Juppé didn’t run on account of signatures,” she added, referring to the parrainages.

Given Juppé supporters’ clarion call for sponsors this week, it is likely he will have amassed more pledges by the time the council updates its list next Tuesday.

And a poll released Friday by the Odoxa firm may well help make their case. The survey showed that if Juppé were the conservative candidate in Fillon’s place, he would finish on top in the first round on April 23 with 26.5 percent of the vote, ahead of independent centrist Emmanuel Macron (25 percent) and the National Front candidate Marine Le Pen (24 percent). The same poll showed Fillon falling short of advancing to the May 7 run-off duel with his 19 percent, being only good enough for a third-place finish behind Macron (27 percent) and Le Pen (25.5 percent).

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