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Fillon backers seek unity to revive French presidential bid

Friends and foes in the political camp of Francois Fillon sought to bridge divisions and put the French conservative candidate’s presidential bid back on track on Tuesday after agreeing to stick with him despite a damaging financial scandal.

Fillon, now facing elimination, had been clear favourite to win until reports in January prompted a judicial investigation into public funds he used to pay his wife for work as an assistant, leading to an exodus of supporters and campaign staff.

A member of Fillon’s team said reconciliation talks would begin with discontented centrists of the UDI party, who announced last week that they were withdrawing support for Fillon and his party, The Republicans.

Others members of his team went on radio to deliver a call for unity, saying victory was still feasible.

“The page has turned,” Bruno Retailleau, Fillon’s campaign coordinator, told Radio Classique.

Fillon has sunk to third place in opinion polls as he faces an investigation into allegations he paid his wife Penelope hundreds of thousands of euros for doing very little work as his parliamentary assistant. He denies wrongdoing.

The former prime minister now faces the prospect of being knocked out in the first round on April 23, leaving independent centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen to contest a run-off two weeks later.

Investors have been unsettled by the possibility of a win for Le Pen, who wants to take France out of the euro zone.

Bidding to match the anti-establishment shocks of Donald Trump’s U.S. presidential victory and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union last year, Le Pen is tipped in almost all polls to win the first round of the election, where she faces four main rivals.

But they universally show her losing the head-to-head run-off to Macron, a former economy minister, or to Fillon if he makes it that far.

Unity among the Right, Centrists

Key members of The Republicans party, who thrashed out the deal to rally behind Fillon on Monday, secured a pledge that he would temper his attacks on the judiciary and media, sources close to the party told Reuters.

They also said he had committed to trying to accommodate centrists by working more closely with them.

In legal terms The Republicans have no way to stop Fillon from standing despite the damage his campaign has suffered from the scandal, which has prompted some key aides to resign.

France’s constitutional court on Monday issued a reminder that once a candidate has registered the necessary sponsors, only he or she has the power to withdraw.

With those sponsors already in place, the 63-year-old Fillon can run come what may, even though his party could select a new candidate to run against him.

Senate leader Gerard Larcher, one of the group of right-wing politicians behind Monday’s pro-Fillon announcement, called for unity, saying failure would open the doors of power to Le Pen.

“I cannot resign myself to the idea of a second round where it’s Le Pen versus Macron,” he said.

Republican lawmaker Luc Chatel said consolidating Fillon’s position would involve winning back the UDI centrist group which deserted him last week.

Talks with them would restart on Tuesday, he said. But UDI leader Jean-Christophe Lagarde reiterated on Monday evening that Fillon would not be able to lead them to victory.

His party, which comprises several dozen lawmakers who traditionally work with The Republicans, is due to discuss the situation later in the day.

It was not clear to what extent Monday’s deal could ensure broader reconciliation within The Republicans, especially after a scathing critique of Fillon on Monday by Alain Juppe, who had been touted as a replacement to Fillon but on Monday ruled himself out.

Fillon has upset some members of his party by complaining the investigation amounted to a “political assassination” by the justice system and the media. Juppe said such talk had brought Fillon’s campaign to a dead end.

In an Opinionway poll on Tuesday, Macron was almost level with Le Pen in first round voting intentions well ahead of Fillon.

He appears to be gaining votes from the centre-right but also from the social democrat wing of the Socialist party that appears increasingly divided.

Claude Bartolone, the Socialist president of the lower house of parliament, told Le Monde on Tuesday he may back Macron rather than party candidate Benoit Hamon, the latest high-profile Socialist to suggest switching allegiance.

Hamon, a distant fourth in polls, said he still hoped to pick up the baton after years of Socialist President Francois Hollande, but said it was hard to get a hearing from voters in a climate poisoned by Fillon’s affairs. (Reuters)

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