Thousands of voters braved rainy weather to express support for the beleaguered conservative candidate Francois Fillon. He vowed to continue his candidacy, even as many in his party seem to be abandoning him.
Thousands of French conservatives rallied behind embattled presidential candidate Francois Fillon in Paris on Sunday in what some see as a ditch effort to save his beleaguered campaign.
In a television interview on Sunday, Fillon said "no one can stop me" from standing in the presidential election. He also added that he believed the majority of center-right voters still supported him and that he will not withdraw his candidacy because an "improvised candidate" would lead to failure for France.
Asked directly if he would stand down, he replied: "The answer is no. I see no reason to do that."
Earlier in the day, he urged his supporters to "never give up the fight," even as his campaign is being consumed by a corruption probe. The crowd backed their chosen candidate, responding with chants of "Fillon, president!"
"You should never surrender to worry or anger," he told the rally.
But whether he has enough support to stay in the race for the Republicans party remains to be seen. His campaign suffered a number of high-profile defections this past week.
On Friday, the Union of Democrats and Independents (UDI) withdrew its support for Fillon and asked him to step aside for a candidate they believe has a chance of winning - former Prime Minister Alain Juppe.
Fillon, who was once leading the race to become France's next president, has been dogged by allegations he paid his wife and two of his children for jobs they never did during Fillon's time in the French assembly.
Prosecutors are close to wrapping up their investigation and it is widely thought Fillon will formally be charged with abuse of public funds.
One of Fillon's most prominent supporters - businessman Pierre Danon - told France Info radio on Saturday that "there could be 45,000 people" at Sunday's rally in Paris. While the crowd estimates were put in the thousands it was not immediately clear if the numbers approached the goal sought by Fillon.
Dividing the party
The rally has worried some within the Republicans party that it will be hijacked by hardline conservative movements and several heavyweight party officials refused to attend.
"It's making me uncomfortable," said Christian Estrosi, the right-wing president of France's southeastern region. "This rally also seems to want to defy the institutions of our country, and that's not possible."
"With Fillon it's a certain failure. This (rally) is an excess because you don't put the street up against the (state's) institutions," UDI president Jean-Christophe Lagarde told Europe 1 radio."Even if there are 200,000 people, to win a presidential election you need 20 million people."
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo tweeted that the event "endangers" French values. The Socialist Party mayor of the French capital said the real goal of the rally was to demonstrate against investigative judges, police and journalists "bringing to light the truth."
But some high-profile supporters of the 63-year-old Fillon rallied to his defense.
Henri de Castries - a former CEO of the Axa insurance firm - said Fillon should remain in the race because he had "legitimacy" due to his clear victory over Alain Juppe in November's nominating contest.
Top Republicans party officials are expected hold an emergency meeting Monday to decide on a course of action as the April-May election nears.
bik/sms (AP, Reuters, AFP)