PARIS • French presidential candidate Francois Fillon yesterday faced mounting pressure from his own conservative camp to withdraw from the race, as a senator from the Republican party warned it could split if he refused to bow out.
Senator Bruno Gilles, head of the party's influential Bouches-du-Rhone region, said in a radio interview that party faithful had "turned the page" and overwhelmingly wanted a change of candidate.
Mr Fillon, 62, has been embroiled in a deepening scandal since satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaine reported that he had paid his wife hundreds of thousands of euros of public money for work she may not have done. An opinion poll published overnight showed the former front runner is now set to trail in third behind far-right leader Marine Le Pen and independent centrist Emmanuel Macron in the first round of the election on April 23.
"This scandal is doing us more damage every day, and we can't wait another two weeks," Mr Gilles told France Bleu Provence radio. "There are presidential and legislative elections at stake and, beyond that, the survival of our political party."
He added: "This could go as far as a party split."
Meanwhile, Ms Le Pen kicked off her presidential campaign yesterday, hoping that promises to shield voters from globalisation would boost her chances.
Opinion polls show the 48-year old daughter of National Front (FN) founder Jean-Marie Le Pen topping the first round on April 23 but then losing the May 7 run-off to a mainstream candidate.
But in the most unpredictable election race France has known in decades, the FN hopes a two-day rally in Lyon, where Ms Le Pen is spelling out her electoral platform, will help convince voters to back her.
"The aim of this programme is first of all to give France its freedom back and give the people a voice," Ms Le Pen said in the introduction to her manifesto.
Among her 144 "commitments", Ms Le Pen proposes leaving the euro zone, taxes on the job contracts of foreigners, lowering the retirement age and increasing several welfare benefits while lowering payroll tax for small firms and income tax.
The manifesto also foresees reserving certain rights now available to all residents, including free education, to French citizens only, hiring 15,000 police officers, building more prisons, curbing migration and leaving Nato's integrated command.
Mr Macron was also due to hold a rally in Lyon yesterday to propose a radically different platform.