The man seen as a possible saviour of France’s centre-right has disappointed supporters by announcing he will not stand in next month’s presidential election, while the scandal-hit François Fillon has called on supporters to unite around his candidacy.
Former prime minister Alain Juppé, who lost Les Républicains’ primary election last November to Fillon, said it was too late for him to save the party, which is riven with political scandal and the prospect of defeat.
“I confirm, once and for all, that I will not be a candidate in the election for the presidency of the republic,” Juppé told journalists in Bordeaux, where he is mayor.
In a brief declaration tinged with bitterness, he described the deeply divided situation in which his party finds itself as “a waste”.
Juppé said Fillon had “a boulevard in front of him” to win the presidency, accusing him of embarking on “a defence based on claims of a conspiracy and political assassination” against allegations that he employed his wife and children in “fake jobs” at taxpayers’ expense.
Fillon’s recent statements justifying his refusal to stand down had taken the beleaguered candidate “down a dead end”, Juppé said.
Juppé said calls for him to step into the breach had caused him “to hesitate and reflect”. However, he reiterated it was too late for him to reunite his fractured party.
“It’s too late for me, but it’s not too late for France. It’s never too late for France,” he said, wishing whoever represented the centre-right the best of luck.
On Monday night, the political committee of Les Républicans threw its weight behind Fillon after a crisis meeting. At least 20 party heavyweights declared they were unanimously renewing their support for the candidate.
Fillon told those gathered that there was “no plan B” after Juppé’s refusal to replace him as the candidate.
Gérard Larcher, the president of the French senate, told journalists: “The debate is closed.”
Fillon called on supporters to unite around him as he went into the meeting with party colleagues. In a statement sent to the press, he said a rally on Sunday had confirmed his legitimacy as the party’s candidate.
“Now it’s time for everyone to recover and be reasonable. Our voters will not forgive those who continue the poison and division. I call on all women and men of good faith to unite, to respect the message our voters expressed during the primary election and to unite around my candidacy, which is the only legitimate one,” it read.
Fillon smiled and looked confident as he arrived but he was expected to face further calls to stand down and let the party find a new candidate while there is still time.
Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president who failed to progress from the first round of Les Républicains’ primary, said the aim of Monday’s meeting was to ensure a “dignified and credible way out from a situation which cannot last any longer and which is the source of deep concerns among French people”.
Fillon has been badly damaged by revelations that judges are considering putting him and his British-born wife, Penelope, formally under investigation.
Judges are looking into allegations Penelope Fillon and two of the couple’s children were paid almost €900,000 (£780,000) in total for jobs that did not exist.
Fillon has been summoned before judges on 15 March, when he could be mis en examen – the nearest thing in French law to being charged or arraigned. Fillon had said he would withdraw from the presidential race if he was put under official investigation, but last week went back on this pledge, saying it was for the French people to decide.
He has blamed the Socialist government, politically biased judges and the media for his woes, but at a rally on Sunday admitted that while he had not done anything illegal, he should not have employed his wife.
The scandal appears to have benefited the centrist, pro-business candidate Emmanuel Macron in particular, as well as far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen. Polls suggest they will finish in the top two in the first round on 23 April.
Juppé said the Front National would lead France “to disaster” with its “anti-European fanaticism”, and described Macron’s programme as weak. The French left, he said, was “fractured and irreconcilable”.
Juppé said Fillon was showing a determined obstinacy to carry on in the face of widespread defections from his political camp and plunging polls.
“I am not in a position to bring about the necessary reuniting of the right around a project,” he said.