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France’s Fillon keeps bid alive as rival rules himself out

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Former French prime minister Alain Juppe ruled himself out on Monday as an alternative to his rightwing party colleague Francois Fillon whose campaign has been thrown into chaos by a fake job scandal.

Juppe, 71, was the most likely candidate to step in for Fillon and try to unite their deeply divided Republicans party only seven weeks from the start of the two-stage election.

Polls suggest Juppe would be more popular with voters, but the centrist is considered too soft on immigration and other social issues for many of Fillon's supporters and the right flank of the party.

"I confirm for a final time that I will not be a candidate to be president of the republic," Juppe said in a downbeat statement that criticised Fillon and the "confused" conditions for the election.

His decision removes a major rival for Fillon, whose bid for the presidency remains on track despite mounting criticism within the party and falling poll numbers.

The conservative 63-year-old was once a clear favourite to be France's next leader but his campaign is mired in accusations he used public funds to pay his wife hundreds of thousands of euros for fake parliamentary jobs.

"No one today can prevent me being a candidate," he told France 2 late on Sunday, adding that the accusations against him were "aimed at stopping me being a candidate."

The chaos in Fillon's camp has made an already unpredictable election even harder to call.

It appears to have benefited centrist pro-business candidate Emmanuel Macron in particular, as well as far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who are shown by polls as the top two candidates in the first round on April 23.

Polls suggest that Macron, 39, would beat Le Pen in the decisive second round, but after the shock of Donald Trump's rise in the United States and Britain's vote to leave the European Union, analysts caution against bold predictions.

- Crisis meeting later -
Ahead of a crisis meeting of leaders from the Republicans party later Monday, former president Nicolas Sarkozy piled pressure on Fillon to meet Juppe and find a way out of the crisis.

Sarkozy, who picked Fillon as his prime minister from 2007-12, urged him and Juppe to meet "to find a dignified and credible way out of this situation which cannot continue and which is creating serious problems for the French people."

A number of Sarkozy's closest allies have called on Fillon to step aside.

Juppe has consistently ruled himself out of contention.

"Never under the fifth republic have we had an election in such confused conditions," he said, stressing the dangers of Le Pen's "anti-European fanaticism" and Macron's "political immaturity."

Turning to his own party at the press conference in his hometown of Bordeaux, he commented "what a waste!" before chastising Fillon.

Fillon's defence founded on a "supposed plot" against him from the justice system and the media "had led him into a dead-end," Juppe said.

The current French leader, Francois Hollande, also warned in an interview with six European papers published on Monday that the threat of a Le Pen presidency was real but that he would fight to prevent it happening.

"The far right has not been so high (in the polls) for more than 30 years but France will not give in," the president said.

France "is aware that the vote on April 23 and May 7 will determine not only the fate of our country but also the future of the European project itself," he added.

Le Pen, 48, has vowed to ditch the euro as France's currency if elected and hold a referendum on the country's membership of the European Union.

- Fillon under fire -
Fillon, a devout Catholic, beat Juppe in the Republicans' primary in November, pulling off a surprise victory by campaigning as a "clean" candidate.

"If the voters of the right and the centre wanted Alain Juppe, they would have voted for Alain Juppe," he said on Sunday.

But even his TV interview was not without controversy as he came under fire on social media for repeatedly stressing he was "not autistic" and could recognise the problems his campaign was suffering.

He was the frontrunner in the presidential race until Le Canard Enchaine newspaper revealed in late January that he paid his wife Penelope and two of their children nearly 900,000 euros ($950,000) as his parliamentary assistants.



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