Former investment banker Emmanuel Macron has cemented his status as favourite to win the French presidency as his conservative rival, Francois Fillon, came under renewed pressure to pull out because of a deepening financial scandal.
For the first time since the line up of candidates became clear, a poll on Friday showed Macron finishing ahead of far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the opening round. It came a day after he promised a blend of fiscal discipline and stimulus to strengthen a feeble economic recovery.
As the independent centrist’s campaign built momentum, Fillon’s camp was mired in a crisis of confidence, buffeted by a string of resignations among his close advisers and backers.
The same poll showed that if the 62-year-old stepped down and was replaced by another former prime minister, Alain Juppe, it would be Juppe who wins in the first round, with Le Pen eliminated.
A source in Juppe’s entourage said the 71-year-old – who lost to Fillon in the November primaries – was “ready to take part in the search for a solution”.
Juppe, himself convicted in 2004 for misuse of public funds, has until now ruled out a comeback. “No is no,” he tweeted last month.
Fillon this week promised to fight “to the end” despite the deepening financial scandal over his wife’s pay that could see him placed under formal investigation for misuse of public funds later this month.
He has complained of judicial and media bias that amounted to a “political assassination”. Several former supporters have since deserted him, saying they cannot support him given those attacks on the judiciary.
On Friday his chief spokesman, Thierry Solere, joined their ranks along with another senior Republican, Dominique Bussereau. Solere did not say why he was quitting.
In a further blow, a source close to the UDI said the centre-right party was set to withdraw its support too.