Republicains presidential candidate Francois Fillon has called on his supporters to turn out for a Paris rally, despite declining party support. Former PM Juppe is waiting in the wings if Fillon falls on his sword.
After several high-profile members of his own Republicans party urged him to drop out of the campaign earlier this week, Fillon told 1,500 supporters at a campaign event in the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers on Saturday that he had had "better" birthdays.
"Brick by brick, I have prepared an ambitious program, the only one in my eyes that can restore France's vitality," he told a smaller-than-expected crowd of supporters.
As he was speaking his Republicans party announced it will decide on Monday - a day earlier than planned - on the fate of the beleaguered conservative candidate for France's presidential election in the first round of the two-stage contest on April 23.
"I am being attacked, but through me what they are trying to attack is the national recovery and a will to change that you all want. Don't abdicate! Don't give up!" he said.
In an interview with the "Journal du Dimanche" newspaper Penelope Fillon, the candidate's wife, said she had advised her husband to "continue to the end."
His foreign affairs point man and his campaign spokesman have left the campaign and the leader of the small centrist UDI party said the party was withdrawing its backing.
The 63-year-old Fillon said he was trying to turn the page on a nightmare week that had seen scores of defections from his camp after he admitted he faces criminal charges over allegations he gave his family fake parliamentary jobs. In her interview published Sunday, Penelope Fillon said "Yes, I worked for my husband."
Current opinion polls show that far-right leader Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron would progress to contest the second round runoff on May 7. An Ifop poll published on Saturday night showed 71 percent of respondents wanted Fillon to drop his bid for the presidency.
Businessman Pierre Danon - one of Fillon's most prominent backers - told France Info radio on Saturday that "there could be 45,000 people" at a Sunday rally in Paris, seen by some as the former prime minister's last chance to revive his campaign.
Sunday's planned demonstration has worried some within the party that it will be hijacked by hardline conservative movements and several heavyweight party officials have said they will not 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."
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 Fillon supporters from the business world rallied around him.
Henri de Castries - a former CEO of the Axa insurance firm - said Fillon should remain in the race because he had "legitimacy" from his clear victory over Alain Juppe in November's nominating contest.
Juppe waits in the wings
Juppe has said he would only replace Fillon if the candidate makes the decision himself to pull out. "The right-wing and center camps... have to be united behind him," a source in Juppe's camp told the French news agency AFP.
According to an Odoxa-Dentsu Consulting survey of 943 people, the 71-year-old would gather 26.5 percent of votes, narrowly ahead of Macron on 25 percent, while Le Pen would slip to third place on 24 percent.
Juppe was convicted in 2004 for an illegal party funding scheme while serving as finance director at Paris City Hall during Jacques Chirac's tenure as mayor, from 1977 to 1995. He received a 14-month suspended prison sentence on appeal, and was barred from elected office for a year. He was re-elected Mayor of Bordeaux in October 2006, a position he has held for more than ten years.
Fillon was the frontrunner until mid-January when "Le Canard Enchaine" newspaper alleged he paid his wife Penelope and two of their children nearly 900,000 euros as parliamentary assistants or advisors.
He has denied wrongdoing and claimed that the fake jobs charges were politically motivated.
The police reportedly raided the Fillons' country manor house near the town of Le Mans on Friday after the couple's Paris apartment was searched on Thursday.
The short-lived frontrunner for the Elysee Palace is to meet investigating magistrates on March 15 and be placed under formal investigation, the equivalent under French law of being charged.
jbh/sms,jm (AFP, dpa, Reuters)