French conservatives in tailspin as François Fillon's candidacy sinks

French presidential candidate François Fillon called on his supporters to stick with him, as the mayor of Paris asked him to cancel a rally.

Christophe Ena/AP
French conservative presidential candidate Francois Fillon and his wife Penelope appear during a rally in Paris, Sunday. Fillon is urging his supporters not to 'give up the fight' for the presidency despite corruption allegations dogging him.

The French Republicans’ house of cards is tumbling down.

Conservative François Fillon, who once seemed a sure bet to take the presidency in this spring’s election, is seeing his candidacy collapse under nepotistic boondoggles charges. His fall may leave a fractured field open for nationalist Marine Le Pen and political outsider Emmanuel Macron to battle it out in a runoff election.

Mr. Fillon led the polls until January, when accusations he arranged publicly funded jobs for his wife and two of his children surfaced. Such favoritism is legal under French law, but critics assert Fillon’s family members did not perform the jobs assigned. He claims they did, and denounces the attack as a "political assassination." Fillon may face charges on March 15.

Fillon, who asked supporters not to “abdicate” to the opposition on Saturday, makes his last stand Sunday with a rally near the Eiffel tower designed to show opponents how much support remains.

But his final bid for political survival seems increasingly unlikely, with top campaign personnel resigning and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo asking Fillon to cancel the event.

“Our ties to liberty force us to denounce this rally as a grave act of moral and political failure, contrary to our values," Ms. Hidalgo said in a tweet.

If Fillon’s rally fails to generate the necessary political capital, current polls suggest National Front leader Ms. Le Pen and independent economy minister and former investment banker Mr. Macron will win the first round of elections on April 23 to face off in the May 7 presidential runoff.

Such an outcome would make this election the first in French history in which both of France’s two main political parties failed to reach the second round of voting.

Many of the political establishment express concern at the idea of a win by Le Pen, who ran on an anti-immigration, anti-establishment platform and hopes to lead France to its own European Union exit.

"I cannot resign myself to the idea of a second round where it's Le Pen versus Macron," said Senate leader and Fillon-backer Gérard Larcher.

Former conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, who came in third in his party’s primary for the current race, is weighing in as well, trying to broker a meeting between Fillon and former Prime Minister Alain Juppé, who many conservatives consider the last hope to save their party.

"Our divisions will pave the way for the far-right," Mr. Sarkozy warned.

But Mr. Juppé, who lost to Fillon in the primary, has firmly rejected such calls.

"What a waste," Juppé said. "Last week I received many calls asking me to take over. They made me hesitate, I thought about it. Today, uniting everyone has become even more difficult.... I confirm, once and for all, that I will not bid to be the French president."

The liberal Socialist party currently holds Elysee Palace, but President François Hollande’s record-setting unpopularity led him to become the first sitting president in French history not to seek a second term.

Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon faces a vote split by numerous left-wing candidates who refuse to rally behind him, and few expect he’ll make it to the presidential runoff.

A Tuesday poll suggests Macron and Le Pen will advance to the second round of voting, where the centrist Macron will win by a 20 percent margin.

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