PARIS – The once-promising presidential bid of French conservative Francois Fillon, already seriously hobbled by pending corruption charges, took another hit Friday with the resignation of his campaign spokesman, adding momentum to a stream of defections and panicking his party.
As Fillon’s fortunes fell, former Prime Minister Alain Juppe again was being mentioned as a potential Plan B for The Republicans party, which could find itself without a candidate as the April 23 first round of the presidential election nears. A runoff between the top two candidates is May 7.
Fillon, meanwhile, tried to look past the mounting pressure. His supporters planned a rally near the Eiffel Tower on Sunday, and Fillon himself tweeted a video plea for people to show up in force “to show everyone what the will of the militants of France looks like.”
“Don’t let anyone deprive you of your choice. I ask you to resist,” Fillon said in an apparent reference to the defections and behind-the-scenes maneuvering.
A poor showing at the support rally could impact Fillon’s legitimacy, which has been based on his win in the primary held by conservatives and centrists.
After Thierry Solere announced he was bowing out as spokesman, becoming the most visible of Fillon’s defectors so far, others followed suit for a second day Friday, with some calling for the more moderate Juppe to return to the ring.
Juppe, the Bordeaux mayor, placed second in the conservative primary. He has said several times in recent weeks that he wasn’t interested in taking Fillon’s place as the Republicans candidate, but remained silent Friday as the calls for him to step in intensified.
Nadine Morano, a former minister who backed Fillon’s candidacy, was among those making a U-turn Friday. Morano urged him to withdraw his bid and cancel the solidarity rally, which she claimed could overheat.
“I’m among those who use their energy trying to convince Francois Fillon to step down,” Morano said. “I’m worried that the French will not let us reach the second round.”
Fillon’s campaign treasurer quit on Thursday, when three Republican lawmakers also announced they were withdrawing their support.
Financial prosecutors are investigating allegations that Fillon gave his wife and two of their children taxpayer-funded jobs they never performed. Fillon initially said he would step down if charged, but decided to maintain his candidacy even though he’s been summoned to face charges on March 15.
His family members were paid more than $1.1 million over a number of years for work as his parliamentary aides. It is legal in France to hire relatives for public jobs, if they actually work. Fillon insists his wife and children did.
Jerome Chartier, Fillon’s special adviser, is remaining faithful to the candidate even though his companion thinks a way out is needed.
“I’ve seen friends leave,” Chartier said on BFM-TV. “In the toughest moments, you hope the sailors will pull the oars with the captain. I’m a sailor and I pull the oars with Captain Fillon.”
Virginie Calmels, Chartier’s partner and president of a conservative movement called DroiteLib, wants Fillon, Juppe and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy to meet and make a decision.
“The spectacle of this presidential campaign makes me sick. The violence of the public debate is unheard of,” Calmels said in a statement.
While Fillon’s popularity has nosedived in recent weeks, Juppe’s is high enough that he could qualify for the second round of the election, according to an opinion poll published Friday.
Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and independent centrist Emmanuel Macron have taken turns leading in the polls.
In his tweeted video, Fillon said the election’s stakes are higher than ever and that the contest involves a decision “between several conceptions of France and its future,” the far-right or left.
Fillon used language in the video normally employed by Le Pen and her anti-immigration party, from “national sovereignty” to “vanquishing Islamic totalitarianism.”
Le Pen, appearing at a town hall east of Paris on Friday, derided the uproar and the conservatives.
“After having organized these pseudo-primary elections, [they] are in fact throwing the vote of the voters in the trashcan, in order to find another candidate,” Le Pen said.
She also tackled a topic that concerns her directly: the presumption of innocence. Le Pen and her National Front party also face several investigations, and the European Parliament voted Thursday to lift her immunity in a case surrounding her tweets of gruesome images of the Islamic State group.
“When [Fillon] declared that he would not be candidate if charged, I declared that this is an incoherent statement because in France, there is a principle named presumption of innocence,” she said.