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Embattled Fillon reasserts political bid as party chiefs plan crisis meeting

GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT / AFP | French presidential election candidate for the right-wing Les Républicains (LR) party François Fillon waves at the audience after delivering a speech to present his programm during a campaign meeting in Aubervilliers.

French presidential candidate François Fillon was under growing pressure to quit the race on Saturday as party leaders brought forward a meeting to discuss his bid and former allies shied away from a planned rally to support him.


Once the frontrunner, conservative Fillon is mired in a scandal over his wife's pay, and his campaign has been in serious trouble since he learned this week that he could be
placed under formal investigation for misuse of public funds.

After a string of resignations among advisers and backers, the 63-year old former prime minister is banking on a rally of supporters in Paris on Sunday to show his detractors that he remains their best hope to win the presidency.

But as soon as he ended a campaign meeting on Saturday at which he defended his political plans as the only credible future for the country, The Republicans party announced it was bringing forward a meeting of senior officials to discuss the latest developments.

"Given the evolution of the political situation just seven weeks from the presidential election ... the political committee, which includes notably the candidates of the (party)
primaries, has been brought forward by 24 hours to Monday March 6 at 1800 (1700 GMT)," it said in a statement.

Former prime minister Alain Juppé, who lost to Fillon in the November primary and has been widely touted to replace him should he step aside, is not attending.

Opinion polls continue to show Fillon would fail to make the second round of the April/May election. Instead, centrist Emmanuel Macron is consolidating his position as
favourite to win a second-round head-to-head against far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen.

Fillon's backers have been on the offensive since the candidate revealed that he could be placed under formal investigation.

They are organising a demonstration of up to 45,000 people on Sunday to show he still carries favour among grassroots supporters. At Saturday's campaign meeting he remained defiant.

"Brick by brick, I have prepared an ambitious programme, the only one in my eyes that can restore France's vitality," he told a rally north of Paris aimed at outlining his vision for the country.

"I am being attacked, but through me what they are trying to attack is the national recovery and a will to change that you all want. Don't abdicate! Don't give up!" he said.

Plane crash

Fillon suffered more blows on Friday when his campaign chief Patrick Stefanini and chief spokesman Thierry Solere both quit and the centre-right party UDI withdrew its support.

On Saturday, five Republican party members of the European Parliament joined the exodus, calling for a new candidate to represent them.

A poll published on Friday may also have rattled the Fillon camp. It showed that if he were to step down and be replaced by fellow former prime minister Alain Juppé, then Juppé would make it to the run-off and eliminate Le Pen in the process.

"The pilot is in the cockpit, the door is locked so it's difficult to talk with him, but we don't want the plane to crash," Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, a senator from Fillon's The Republicans party told LCI television on Saturday.

Fillon has denied any wrongdoing and complained of judicial and media bias that amounted to a "political assassination". His attack on the judiciary in particular has caused unease within his party.

Sunday's planned demonstration has also worried some within right-wing ranks over fears that it will be hijacked by hardline conservative movements. Several heavyweight party officials said on Twitter they would not attend.

"It's making me uncomfortable," said Christian Estrosi, the right-wing president of France's southeastern region.This rally also seems to want to defy the institutions of our country, and that's not possible."


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