François Fillon put his future as French presidential candidate for the centre right in the hands of party leaders after mobilising tens of thousands of supporters at a rally in Paris.
Mr Fillon said he was the victim of a “manhunt” but notably omitted to tell the crowd — mobilised as show of strength among grassroots Republicans — that he would fight on as Republican candidate despite the corruption allegations levelled against him.
The former prime minister lashed out at senior party colleagues who have abandoned him in droves in recent days for “fleeing the ship” and reminded the crowd that he was their choice, not that of the political elites.
But he implied that the decision on whether he could fight on now rested with party leaders who have convened an executive committee meeting on Monday evening.
“I’m being attacked on all sides and I must in good conscience listen to you, listen to this immense crowd that is pushing me onwards,” Mr Fillon said in the Place du Trocadéro, across the Seine from Eiffel Tower. “But I must also listen to those doubters who are fleeing the ship. Their responsibility is huge and so is mine.”
“I’ve examined my conscience,” Mr Fillon added. “To the politicians in my camp, it is now your turn to do it.”
The rally was seen as a make-or-break moment for conservative candidate who has been haemorrhaging support since announcing he was likely to be placed under formal investigation over claims he used public funds to employ his wife and children in fictitious jobs. Mr Fillon has blamed the judiciary and the Socialist government for manipulating the investigation to weaken him.
Republican party heavyweights including ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy are rapidly losing patience with their candidate and many want to replace him with Alain Juppé, the mayor of Bordeaux. But they risk alienating grassroots members — and even pushing some into the arms of the far-right — if they force him out.
Christian Estrosi, the rightwing mayor of Nice, said he and other senior figures would come forward with an “initiative” for Mr Fillon’s “respectful withdrawal”.
Mr Fillon achieved a landslide victory in the party primaries in November with a conservative programme on social issues and free-market economic reforms and was the favourite to win the French election. However he has dropped to third place in the polls since becoming embroiled in the legal scandal in January.
The Fillon campaign claimed 200,000 people turned up at the Place du Trocadéro to support their candidate, but others noted that the capacity of the square is roughly a quarter of that. Some in the crowd sang happy birthday — Mr Fillon celebrated his 63rd birthday on Saturday — and there were intermittent cries of “Fillon — President” throughout.
The crowd, largely of older people, seemed in the main not to mind that Mr Fillon had employed family members and many questioned the allegations that his wife had been paid but not actually done any work.
“Suppose Madame Fillon didn’t work — who was his assistant?” asked Jean Claude Ganeau, a retired fighter pilot in his eighties who lives in Paris. “Of course she worked.”
He said he would support Mr Fillon because he “is the only one who can do anything.”
I’m being attacked on all sides and I must in good conscience listen to you, listen to this immense crowd that is pushing me onwards
Employing his family “is not a problem”, agreed Martin Joseph, a doctor from near Fontainebleau, who attended the rally with his wife. “More than half of the politicians in the National Assembly do it.”
Although the march was largely peaceful, at one point several youths who were said to be from the Front National appeared to try and break into a truck full of journalists opposite the stage, and shouts ensued.
But it was Mr Fillon’s mention of Emmanuel Macron — the independent centrist who has pushed the conservative candidate into third place — that drew the loudest boos from the crowd.
Many praised Mr Fillon’s steadfastness. “He has lots of tenacity,” said Marie Françoise, a retiree who lives in Paris. “We need determined people to raise up France. And he has the best programme.”
Mr Fillon’s wife Penelope stood next to him during his speech, waving a French flag. This weekend she spoke out to defend herself against the claims of fictitious employment. She told the French weekly newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche: “I did not consider that I was a politician, I worked for my husband and the people of the [county of] Sarthe,” citing letters, emails and notes she has produced for investigators.
Mr Fillon’s implosion has helped make this the most uncertain French presidential election in a generation and fuelled support for Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen. Recent polls show that the pair are likely to go head to head in the second round of voting.
But if Sunday’s torrential rain was an apt reflection of the week that Mr Fillon has had, the emergence of the sun towards the end of Mr Fillon’s speech gave some cause for optimism. Looking up at the sky, Mr Joseph said: “It’s a good sign — the sun.”
Additional reporting by Anne-Sylvaine Chassany in Paris.
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