French presidential election candidate for the right-wing Les Republicains (LR) party Francois Fillon waves on March 2, 2017 during a public rally in Nimes, southern France. / AFP PHOTO / PASCAL GUYOT
Embattled French presidential candidate Francois Fillon suffered a new setback Friday as his spokesman quit, while veteran conservative Alain Juppe stood ready to replace him in the race.
Spokesman Thierry Solere posted on Twitter that he was leaving Fillon’s campaign, the latest sign that the candidate’s support is crumbling over an expenses scandal.
Pressure has been building on Fillon since the former prime minister, who turns 63 on Saturday, revealed this week that he will be charged later this month over allegations he paid his wife Penelope hundreds of thousands of euros for fake parliamentary jobs.
The 71-year-old Juppe, also an ex-premier and a one-time foreign minister, was beaten by Fillon in the conservative primary in November after beginning the contest as a clear favourite.
Juppe has kept a low profile since. Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen has taken the lead in opinion polls and centrist Emmanuel Macron has also benefited from Fillon’s woes.
– Juppe sets conditions –
With the March 17 deadline for the collection of signatures necessary to launch a candidacy fast approaching ahead of the first round of the election on April 23, a member of Juppe’s entourage told AFP that the veteran was prepared to take over.
Juppe “will not refuse if all the conditions are met — Francois Fillon has to take the decision to pull out himself and the rightwing and centre camps… have to be united behind him”, the unnamed source said.
One opinion poll Friday showed that were Juppe to step into the presidential race he would go straight into the lead.
Juppe would have 26.5 percent of votes, giving him a narrow lead over Macron on 25 percent, while Le Pen would slip to third place on 24 percent, according to the Odoxa-Dentsu Consulting poll of 943 people.
Meanwhile former rightwing president Nicolas Sarkozy was holding talks with senior conservative figures on Friday, reportedly as he pondered throwing his support behind Juppe.
Since his defeat in the primary, Juppe — who is viewed as more centrist than Fillon — has stayed out of the fray in the southwest city of Bordeaux where he is mayor.
Police raided the Fillons’ Paris residence on Thursday searching for further evidence for the investigation, adding to pressure on the candidate to step aside.
Solere’s resignation meant he joined a list of defectors who include two deputy directors, the campaign treasurer and foreign affairs point man Bruno Le Maire.
Le Pen, campaigning on an anti-immigration and anti-EU platform, has for months been forecast to reach the second round of an election influenced by the same populist themes that propelled Donald Trump to power in the United States and led British voters to opt to leave the European Union.
Polls currently show however that Le Pen will be beaten in the decisive runoff on May 7 by either the fast-rising Macron or the conservative candidate.
– The right’s fear –
The fear for the right is that Fillon will fail to reach the runoff.
Fillon has hit out at the justice system, claiming he was the victim of a “political assassination” over the fake jobs allegations that were first made by the Canard Enchaine newspaper.
Investigators are probing what work Fillon’s wife Penelope actually performed for her pay. He insists she has “always” assisted him during his long political career and has strongly denied any wrongdoing.
A source close to Juppe told Le Parisien newspaper on Friday that the veteran politician “felt ill” when he heard Fillon questioning the impartiality of judges.
Socialist President Francois Hollande made a similar criticism this week, telling Fillon that being a presidential candidate did not give him the right to “cast suspicion on the work of the police and judges”.