French conservatives staged an eleventh-hour show of unity on Thursday as François Fillon, their scandal-hit presidential candidate, held a breakfast meeting with Nicolas Sarkozy, the man he trounced in the party primary.
Mr Fillon still has a fighting chance of winning the Elysée back for the Right, the latest polls suggest, despite the fake job scandal that appeared at one point to have doomed his campaign.
He served as prime minister under Mr Sarkozy’s presidency, but the two have never enjoyed a cordial relationship and analysts said the ex-president was displaying support to fend off accusations that he had abandoned Mr Fillon.
Party insiders said Mr Sarkozy plans to seize back control of the Republicans if Mr Fillon is knocked out in the first round vote on Sunday.
After their talks at Mr Sarkozy’s Paris home, the former president escorted Mr Fillon to the gate. He told reporters he could not resign himself to seeing the election turn into a duel between Marine Le Pen, and Front National leader, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, an extreme-Left populist.
“France is being watched by the whole world… And these two candidacies… are the opposite of what is appropriate in an open, modern country.”
Mr Fillon said on Thursday that he had cancelled an interview with Le Monde this week because the newspaper rejected his demand not to be asked about the corruption charges he faces.
Mr Fillon said: “It’s not the media who decide the rhythm of the campaign, who decide the questions, who decide the campaign.”
Mr Fillon also refused an interview with the TV channel BFM.
Mr Fillon’s highly-publicised talks with Mr Sarkozy came a day after an awkward public appearance with his other main party rival, Alain Juppé. A former prime minister, Mr Juppé had been poised to replace Mr Fillon as candidate last month as his support dwindled and he was written off as a no-hoper.
Mr Juppé pledged lukewarm support for Mr Fillon, who is now neck-and-neck with the other three leading candidates — Emmanuel Macron, a centrist, Ms Le Pen and Mr Mélenchon.
If Mr Fillon loses, he will be accused of sacrificing the party’s interests to his personal ambition. Before being accused of embezzling public money with his British wife, he was the favourite and the Republicans were looking forward to regaining power after five years of unpopular Socialist rule.
Mr Fillon has divided Republicans by appealing to ultra-conservative Catholics and the hard Right, pledging to rid France of Islamist extremists, curb immigration and defend “our Christian heritage”.
More centrist-inclined members of the party, including Mr Juppé, were horrified by his promise last weekend of cabinet posts for members of Sens Commun (Common Sense), a Right-wing Catholic traditionalist movement that has backed his campaign and bussed supporters to his rallies from across France.
Nevertheless, Mr Fillon has won admiration for doggedly campaigning despite the scandal and succeeding in improving his approval ratings. He is now within a few points of the leaders, Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen, in France’s most unpredictable election in decades. There are signs that voters who had deserted the Fillon camp in favour of Ms Le Pen or Mr Macron are returning to the fold.
In Calais, the ferry port that has borne the brunt of an influx of migrants desperate to reach Britain, Mr Fillon pledged earlier this week to regain control of France’s borders by renegotiating the Schengen accord on free movement.
His Leftist rival, Mr Mélenchon, who favours Mao-style jackets and describes himself as a “French Chavez”, has been endorsed by Hollywood A-listers including Pamela Anderson and Danny Glover. An online petition in English urges French voters: “Please Don’t Repeat Clinton vs Trump Tragedy”.