Alain Juppé, a former French prime minister, was poised to replace François Fillon as corruption investigators searched the home of the scandal-tainted centre-Right presidential candidate yesterday (Thurs) and allies deserted him.
Sources close to Mr Juppé, who had previously ruled out being a “plan B”, told Libération newspaper he had reconsidered because of the deepening crisis in the Républicains party provoked by Mr Fillon’s refusal to stand aside despite haemorrhaging support.
A day after Mr Fillon revealed that judges are to place him under formal investigation later this month over allegations that he illegally employed his British wife and children at taxpayers’ expense, detectives searched his home in the capital’s elegant 7th arrondissement.
His presidential bid appeared close to collapse as more than 20 centre-Right MPs and councillors publicly withdrew support for him and key members of his campaign team quit. About 20 mayors also urged him to stand aside in favour of another candidate better placed to regain the Elysée Palace.
Allies of Mr Juppé, who came second to Mr Fillon in the Republicain primaries, said he was “ready but loyal” and would only step in if asked to do so by the beleaguered candidate.
With an opinion poll indicating that three-quarters of voters would prefer Mr Fillon to withdraw, key figures in his party fear that he will be knocked out in the first round of voting at the end of next month.
Still defiant, Mr Fillon responded that his “support base is holding” as he addressed a rally of 3,000 supporters in the southern city of Nimes last night. "You see before you a fighter," he declared. "I will never give up."
Mr Juppé had previously been blocked from seeking to take over by supporters of Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president. Yesterday Mr Sarkozy appeared to lift his objections.
His ally, the MP Georges Fenech, said he was now supporting Mr Juppé because he could not accept “his political family being taken hostage”.
The Républicains party was thrown into chaos after Mr Fillon vowed to fight on until the election in less than two months. In a defiant speech on Wednesday, he attacked the justice system for seeking his “political assassination”.
Some of Mr Fillon's supporters were alarmed by his plan to hold a rally in Paris on Sunday which he said would be a protest against “the coup d’état by the judges”.
President Hollande warned him not to turn his meetings into demonstrations against the judiciary. Franck Riester, an MP who had backed Mr Fillon, said: “We have to say stop. Enough is enough.”
The Republicains’ woes further boosted Mr Macron, now the front-runner, who is standing as the candidate of “change and hope”.
Mr Macron, 39, pledged on Thursday to “put an end to nepotism” by banning lawmakers from employing relatives.
He sought to capitalise on the corruption allegations swirling around Mr Fillon and Ms Le Pen, who is also accused of claiming public funds to give a close aide a fake job.
Mr Macron, a former economy minister in the Socialist government, said he would shrink the size of parliament by a third, introduce term limits and tighten the currently lax rules on MPs’ expenses and conflicts of interests.
He plans to overhaul France’s complex retirement system, to introduce exemptions to the 35-hour working week and to reduce unemployment from around 10% to 7% by 2022.
To counter the terrorist threat he will create 10,000 new police posts.
Ms Le Pen is also facing prosecution in a separate case involving inflammatory tweets after the European parliament, where she is an MEP, voted to lift her parliamentary immunity.
This will allow French prosecutors to bring charges against the National Front leader for tweeting graphic images of Isil atrocities.
The case, which is not expected to be resolved for several months, is unlikely to affect her presidential ambitions.