France's Fillon courts both rightists and centrists in campaign re-launch

By Ingrid Melander
Francois Fillon, former French Prime Minister, member of the Republicans political party and 2017 presidential election candidate of the French centre-right, attends a meeting at the National Assembly in Paris, France, March 8, 2017. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

By Ingrid Melander

PARIS (Reuters) - Francois Fillon, the beleaguered conservative candidate in France's presidential election, named prominent allies of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy to his campaign team on Thursday in a bid to broaden his appeal, as opinion polls showed his support had at least stopped eroding.

A few days ago, Fillon's campaign was close to ending over a financial scandal. His drop in opinion polls has been huge. An authoritative monthly poll with a sample of over 15,000 showed the number of voters intending to back him fell by more than a third from a 29 percent peak between December and February.

But a mass rally in Paris on Sunday and the backing of party leaders on Monday suggested he might recover some ground. In the March issue of the Cevipof poll, published on Thursday, he still lagged far-right Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron. But voting intentions for Fillon crept up one point to 19.5 percent.

Fillon's problem is not just the support he has lost since he was accused of using public cash to pay his wife for a ghost job. It is where that support has gone: The Cevipof poll and others show his ex-supporters are split between Macron and Le Pen.

Macron is a pro-European independent centrist; Le Pen an anti-EU, anti-immigration far-rightist. "This means the strategy to lure them back will be particularly tricky," said Jerome Fourquet of Ifop pollsters.

Fillon has taken a hard line since the start of the campaign on issues such as migration and public spending, and he has toughened his language further over recent weeks with an eye to the right wing of his camp and voters tempted by the far right.

That is a line close to Sarkozy's, and on Thursday, Fillon appointed Francois Baroin, a close Sarkozy ally, to the special role of unifying the Republicans party. He named other allies of the ex-president to top roles.

He did not appoint any ally of the more moderate Republican heavyweight Alain Juppe, who has harshly criticized his hard line. But he has been making overtures to the smaller, centrist UDI party.

"The centrists must come back to us, that's how we will win," said Christian Jacob, head of The Republicans' group in the lower house of parliament.

CHALLENGER

The UDI, which last week withdrew its support for Fillon and is still officially reserving judgment, seems set to back him once it secures a deal for an alliance in the June parliamentary elections. Fillon is to meet UDI chief Jean-Christophe Lagarde on Friday.

At this stage, UDI voters are equally split between Macron and Fillon, Fourquet said. Of those who voted for Sarkozy in the first round of the 2012 presidential election, 15 to 17 percent back Macron and the same number support Le Pen.

"It's not at all in the bag for Fillon, he is clearly a challenger, but in a country that has never been more to the right, after five years of (Socialist) Francois Hollande's leadership ... it's not completely excluded either," Fourquet said.

One line of attack for the Fillon campaign, already begun by both his campaign and Le Pen's, is to present Macron as a continuation of Hollande's unpopular policies. Though not a Socialist Party member, Macron was Hollande's adviser and then his economy minister.

While the pressure has relented since Monday, Fillon faces another big challenge on March 15, when judges are set to put him under formal investigation over the fake jobs allegations.

(Editing by Adrian Croft, Larry King)

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