PARIS (AFP) - French presidential candidate Francois Fillon suffered new blows to his scandal-hit campaign on Friday (March 3), while veteran conservative Alain Juppe stood ready to replace him in the race.
Fillon's spokesman quit and the leader of a small centrist party confirmed it was withdrawing its backing over an expenses scandal.
Pressure has been building on the rightwing former prime minister, who turns 63 on Saturday, since he revealed this week that he is to be charged over allegations he paid his wife Penelope hundreds of thousands of euros for fake parliamentary jobs.
The 71-year-old Juppe, also an ex-premier and a one-time foreign minister, was beaten by Fillon in the conservative primary in November after beginning the contest as a clear favourite.
Juppe has kept a low profile since. Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen has taken the lead in opinion polls and centrist Emmanuel Macron has also benefited from Fillon's woes.
With the March 17 deadline for the collection of signatures necessary to launch a candidacy fast approaching, a member of Juppe's entourage told AFP he was prepared to take over - under certain conditions.
Juppe "will not refuse if all the conditions are met - Francois Fillon has to take the decision to pull out himself and the rightwing and centre camps... have to be united behind him", the unnamed source said.
The leader of the centrist UDI party said it was definitively withdrawing its support for Fillon after it suspended its backing on Wednesday.
"We ask the Republicans (Fillon's party) to change candidate and if they do not, we will not be able to continue our alliance," UDI leader Jean-Christophe Lagarde told Ouest France newspaper.
The resignation of Fillon's spokesman Thierry Solere meant he joined a list of defectors who include two deputy directors, the campaign treasurer and foreign affairs point man Bruno Le Maire.
One opinion poll on Friday showed that Juppe - who is viewed as more centrist than Fillon - would go straight into the lead if he took over.
Juppe would have 26.5 per cent of votes, giving him a narrow lead over Macron on 25 per cent, while Le Pen would slip to third place on 24 per cent, according to the Odoxa-Dentsu Consulting poll of 943 people.
Since his defeat in the primary, Juppe has stayed out of the fray and ventured rarely from the southwest city of Bordeaux where he is mayor.
He has made a political comeback after being given a suspended 14-month jail sentence in 2004 over a party funding scandal.
Fillon, whose Paris home was raided by police on Thursday, is going ahead with plans to hold a rally near the Eiffel Tower on Sunday.
In an online video message urging supporters to attend, he said only he could "restore France's strength".
Fillon's headline policy is a pledge to slash half a million civil servants' jobs to cut public spending.
Le Pen, campaigning on an anti-immigration and anti-EU platform, has for months been forecast to reach the second round of an election influenced by the same populist themes that propelled US President Donald Trump to power and led to the Brexit vote in Britain.
Polls currently show however that Le Pen will be beaten in the decisive runoff on May 7 by either the fast-rising Macron or the conservative candidate.
The fear for the right is that Fillon will fail to reach the runoff.
Fillon has hit out at the justice system, claiming he was the victim of a "political assassination" over the fake jobs allegations that were first made by the Canard Enchaine newspaper.
Investigators are probing what work Fillon's wife Penelope actually performed for her pay. He insists she has "always" assisted him during his lengthy political career and has strongly denied any wrongdoing.
A source close to Juppe told Le Parisien newspaper on Friday that the veteran politician "felt ill" when he heard Fillon questioning the impartiality of judges.
Socialist President Francois Hollande also lashed out at Fillon this week, saying being a presidential candidate did not give him the right to "cast suspicion on the work of the police and judges".