PARIS • Former French prime minister Alain Juppe has ruled out a run for presidency, boosting embattled right-wing party colleague Francois Fillon, whose campaign has been thrown into chaos by a "fake jobs" scandal.
Mr Juppe, 71, was the most likely candidate to replace Mr Fillon and try to unite their deeply divided party, The Republicans, seven weeks from the start of the two-stage election. Polls suggest that Mr Juppe would be more popular with voters, but the centrist is seen as too soft on immigration and other social issues for many of Mr Fillon's supporters and the right flank of the party.
"I confirm for a final time that I will not be a candidate to be president of the republic," Mr Juppe said yesterday, in a downbeat statement that criticised Mr Fillon and said France was "sick" and suffering from a "profound crisis of confidence".
His decision removes a major rival for Mr Fillon, who is sticking with his bid for power despite the prospect of criminal charges later this month, as well as mounting criticism within the party and falling poll numbers.
The conservative 63-year-old was once the favourite to be France's next leader but his campaign is now mired in accusations that he used public funds to pay his wife hundreds of thousands of euros for fake parliamentary jobs.
"No one today can prevent me being a candidate," Mr Fillon told TV network France 2 late on Sunday, emboldened by a rally of tens of thousands of supporters earlier in the day in Paris.
But allies of conservative former president Nicolas Sarkozy are asking Mr Fillon to find a replacement candidate, according to a Sarkozy ally present at a meeting on the issue yesterday.
The meeting of Sarkozy allies agreed to ask Mr Christian Jacob, a prominent Republicans member, to meet Mr Fillon and present the demand, the ally, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.
Ahead of yesterday's meeting, Mr Sarkozy had piled pressure on Mr Fillon to meet Mr Juppe and find a way out of the crisis. He urged the two men to meet "to find a dignified and credible way out of this situation, which cannot continue and which is creating serious problems for the French people".
The infighting in The Republicans and Mr Fillon's chaotic campaign have made an already unpredictable election even harder to call.
The disarray appears to have benefited centrist pro-business candidate Emmanuel Macron in particular, as well as far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who are shown by polls to be the top two candidates in the first round of voting on April 23.
Mr Fillon, a devout Catholic, beat Mr Juppe in The Republicans' primary in November last year, pulling off a surprise victory by campaigning as a "clean" candidate.
He was the front runner in the presidential race until the newspaper Le Canard Enchaine reported in late January that he had paid his wife, Penelope, and two of their children nearly €900,000 (S$1.35 million) as his parliamentary assistants.
"Never under the Fifth Republic have we had an election in such confused conditions," Mr Juppe said, stressing the dangers of Ms Le Pen's "anti-European fanaticism" and Mr Macron's "political immaturity".
Mr Fillon's defiance and his accusations that the government, justice system and media were plotting against him "had led him to a dead end", Mr Juppe added, in one of several criticisms of his colleague.
"French people want a profound renewal of their politics," Mr Juppe, a veteran politician with a conviction over a party finance scandal, told a press conference in his hometown of Bordeaux. "Evidently, I do not embody this renewal."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, BLOOMBERG