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Former PM Alain Juppé says will not stand for presidential election as conservative turmoil continues

Georges Gobet, AFP | At a press conference in Bordeaux on March 6, 2017, Les Républicains member Juppé announces ‘once and for all’ that he will not run in the April-May presidential election

Former PM Alain Juppé told reporters Monday that he will not enter the presidential race, even as a fake jobs scandal threatens the election hopes of fellow Les Républicains member François Fillon. Juppé lost to Fillon in a November primary.

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“I confirm once and for all that I will not be candidate to the presidency of the Republic,” Juppé told reporters at a press conference in his hometown of Bordeaux, citing the increasing difficulties to try to unite his fractured party.

He claimed he is no longer in a position to rally enough support behind him in time for the April-May elections, despite numerous calls for a presidential run from rightwing supporters.

"Last week I received many calls asking me to take the helm. They made me hesitate, I thought about it. Today uniting everyone has become even more difficult," the 71 year-old said. "For me, it is too late but it is not too late for France."

The announcement comes amid a deepening crisis crippling France’s conservatives, in which Fillon has faced increasing calls to step aside as his candidacy threatens to be derailed by an expenses scandal. Fillon is accused of arranging for his wife and children to be paid hundreds of thousands of euros for parliamentary jobs they may never have performed.

Speculation had been rife in recent days that former premier Alain Juppé, a conservative political heavyweight, might step in to save Les Républicains from what looks like an increasingly untenable candidate in Fillon. But those hopes have been dashed with his latest announcement, in which Juppé also accused Fillon of having created a political "impasse".

Fillon has denied the allegations against him and denounced them as part of a political "witch hunt". "Of course it is aimed at stopping me from being a candidate," Fillon told France 2 television on Sunday.  

>> Read more: Fillon deserters plead for Plan B, but the clock is ticking

How ‘Penelopegate’ fractured the right

Fillon’s image has been severely dented by the scandal, however, and polls suggest that far-right leader Marine Le Pen and centrist independent candidate Emmanuel Macron are the favourites in the first-round vote on April 23. The two winners of the first round will then compete in the May 7 presidential runoff. In a run-off between Macron and Le Pen, polls show a handy victory for the liberal Macron.

Fillon was the frontrunner until mid-January, when French media reported that Fillon's Welsh-born wife Penelope was paid almost €1 million to serve as his parliamentary assistant, a job she may never have performed. Further investigations found no evidence that she did any government work and Fillon herself has denied ever having worked as an aide to her husband.

"I have never been actually his assistant or anything like that,” she told the Telegraph in 2007.

Two of Fillon's five children were also employed as parliamentary assistants while he was a senator for an additional €84,000.

But Penelope Fillon appeared to backtrack in an interview on Sunday – her first since the scandal broke – when she said she did do work for her husband.

"He needed someone to do a lot of different tasks, and if it wasn't for me, he would have paid someone to do it, so we decided it would be me," Penelope told Le Journal du Dimanche.

Fillon himself struck a defiant chord at a huge rally in Paris on Sunday in front of thousands of supporters. 

“The choice is yours,” he told the crowd before urging them to keep fighting.

“I am sure that it will be all of France’s choice if we are able to gather ourselves in an ultimate push.”

Authorities are expected to place Fillon under formal investigation on March 15.

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