François Fillon is scrambling to rescue his campaign for the French presidency and stave off an internal party revolt, just weeks after he seemed poised for victory.
Mr. Fillon, who is running for the Republican Party, has been battling allegations that he misused public funds during his 30 years in public office and paid for fake jobs. The same allegation has been made against Marine Le Pen of the National Front, adding a bizarre twist to the presidential campaign. Once part of a wave of right-leaning party leaders who had tapped the mood of the electorate, Mr. Fillon is now fighting for his political life.
During a massive outdoor rally in Paris on Sunday, Mr. Fillon implored his supporters "not to give up the fight."
"I am being attacked from all sides and I have to listen to you in conscience," he told the crowd as he stood on a giant stage with the Eiffel Tower in the background. "I must listen to this immense crowd, but I must also question those who doubt and flee the ship."
But the rally may be too late. Several high-ranking party politicians and officials have quit his campaign, including the campaign director. The party's hierarchy has also called a meeting Monday to review the situation, and one senior member said plans are afoot to replace Mr. Fillon, who served as prime minister from 2007 to 2012.
"In the coming hours, we will propose an initiative," Christian Estrosi told BFM TV on Sunday. "We do not have the time to debate who has the most talent. … The easiest thing obviously … is the person who came second in the primaries and that quite simply is [former prime minister] Alain Juppé."
The allegations that have rocked Mr. Fillon's campaign surfaced a few weeks ago when a newspaper reported that during his long years as a member of the National Assembly and Senate he put his wife, Penelope, and two children on the public payroll as assistants even though they did no work. Ms. Fillon received more than $1.1-million in total over 15 years while the children, Marie and Charles, were paid around $118,000 in total over a couple of years.
Police have been investigating possible fraud and a judge will decide on March 15 whether to open a formal process that could lead to charges. That's just two days before nominations close in the presidential election which begins on April 23 with the first round of voting followed by a runoff between the top two candidates on May 7.
In a television interview Sunday evening, Mr. Fillon seemed buoyed by the turnout at the rally, which his organizers put at 200,000, and insisted that he would not quit the race. He added that the rally demonstrated that he commanded wide backing among supporters and he pointed out that he was the overwhelming favourite during the party's primary last November, when he took 67 per cent of more than four million votes cast.
"Despite my mistakes, 200,000 people came out to support me," he told France2 TV. He said that party officials cannot decide his fate. "It's not the party that decides," he said, adding that he had done nothing illegal. "I am the only one who can decide." He lashed out at those behind the allegations, saying they had targeted him because he was the front-runner and that the police probe had been unprecedented in French presidential elections.
Political analyst Nicole Bacharan said the Republicans are facing a standoff between party leaders and Mr. Fillon, who is sinking in opinion polls. "If he stays he won't be elected, that seems like the probable thing," said Ms. Bacharan, who lectures at Sciences Po University in Paris. "In his party, a lot of people want him out. It's going to be between him and them."
She added that Mr. Fillon has backtracked on a promise he made a few weeks ago to step down if he was put under formal investigation by a judge. With that now likely to happen next week, he has changed his tune, calling the probe a "political assassination."
"It's a real trap," she said. "Because he has the legitimacy of a primary, that hasn't gone away, it was a large victory for him. In the meantime, he is betraying a promise that he made several times publicly in a very solemn way, that if he is under investigation he will not be a candidate. He's put himself into a corner. He has no reason for stepping down. But he can't win, so where do we go?"
Ms. Le Pen, 48, faces allegations that during her tenure as a member of the European Parliament, she spent $500,000 on parliamentary assistants who did not exist. Instead, the money was reportedly redirected to pay for her body guard and National Front staff. Ms. Le Pen is also being investigated by French prosecutors for publishing violent images after she posted pictures on social media of Islamic State terrorists executing captives, including American journalist James Foley. The European Parliament voted to remove her parliamentary immunity which will allow French officials to file charges.
She has denied all of the allegations and turned them around, suggesting it was an attack on free speech and part of a plot by the European Parliament to discredit her because she wants to pull France out of the European Union. "This only shows French citizens what the EU is, what the European Parliament is and that it's all part of the system that wants to stop the French people's candidate that I am," she said this week.
Ms. Le Pen is "very similarly to Donald Trump," said Ms. Bacharan. "She seems rather untouched by accusations of corruption and all those things that are normally lethal for a politician. Populists can turn anything around with 'Look, look, the system wants to silence people.'"
The big winner in all of this is likely Emmanuel Macron, who has started his own party called En Marche! and has been gaining in the polls. A survey released this week showed Mr. Macron taking the lead for the first time with 27 per cent support compared to 25.5 per cent for Ms. Le Pen and 19 per cent for Mr. Fillon. Ms. Le Pen had been leading for weeks, although polls also showed that Mr. Macron and Mr. Fillon would beat her easily in a head-to-head runoff in the second round.