François Fillon hit by fresh resignation as Emmanuel Macron gets poll boost in French presidential race

Embattled candidate calls on his supporters to ‘resist’ and show their backing for his campaign

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Former investment banker Emmanuel Macron has cemented his status as favourite to win the French presidency, with his conservative rival, François Fillon, coming under renewed pressure to pull out because of a deepening financial scandal.

Embattled Mr Fillon was hit by another resignation late on Friday when campaign manager Patrick Stefanini announced he was standing down – the third aide to quit in quick succession.

For the first time since the line up of candidates became clear, a poll showed Mr 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 gained momentum, Mr 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 Juppé, it would be Mr Juppé who wins in the first round, with Ms Le Pen eliminated.

A source in Mr Juppé’s entourage said the 71-year-old – who lost to Mr Fillon in the November primaries – was “ready to take part in the search for a solution”.

Mr Juppé, himself convicted in 2004 for misuse of public funds, has until now ruled out a comeback. “No is no,” he tweeted last month.

The spread between French and German 10-year government bond yields fell to its lowest in a month on Friday after the Odoxa poll showed Mr Macron pulling ahead of Ms Le Pen, suggesting investors were now less worried about a far-right victory.

“We saw a peak of panic in February when the focus was on Le Pen,” said DZ Bank strategist Christian Lenk. “It’s always been clear that the odds of Le Pen becoming the next president were quite low and now we see confirmation of that in the polls.”

Mr Macron, 39, who has never run for elected office and finds himself propelled to the front of the race in part by the scandal engulfing Mr Fillon, on Thursday unveiled a detailed manifesto that included plans to revamp the pension system.

Mr 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.

Earlier on Friday his chief spokesman, Thierry Solère, joined their ranks along with another senior Republican, Dominique Bussereau. Mr Solère 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.

Amid intense behind-the-scenes manoeuvring, two senior conservative politicians, Senate President Gérard Larcher and Republicans Secretary-General Bernard Accoyer, held talks on Friday with former President Nicolas Sarkozy to review the situation, a source close to Mr Accoyer told Reuters.

Some legislators said Mr Larcher was among conservative politicians who earlier this week urged Mr Fillon to step down in Mr Juppé’s favour, but Mr Sarkozy loyalists balked at the idea.

The Odoxa poll put Mr Macron on 27 per cent in the first round on 23 April with Ms Le Pen behind him on 25.5 per cent and Mr Fillon on 19 per cent. Ms Le Pen has consistently led first round polls this year.

In a scenario where Mr Juppé was to stand in Mr Fillon’s place, Odoxa put Mr Juppé in front on 26.5 per cent, with Mr Macron on 25 per cent and Ms Le Pen out of the contest on 24 per cent.

Daily voter surveys have also consistently shown any candidate defeating Ms Le Pen, who promises to pull France out of the euro and hold a referendum on European Union membership, in a 7 May run-off.

A separate poll by Opinionway maintained Ms Le Pen’s first round lead. There are no recent polls pitting Mr Macron against Mr Juppé in the second round.

Earlier on Friday a legislator from Mr Fillon’s Republican party said a planned demonstration supporting him would go ahead on Sunday and would be an “important moment” in the presidential race.

President François Hollande said late on Thursday that the rally, near a central Paris square dedicated to human rights, should not go ahead because it amounted to a criticism of France’s institutions.

However, Mr Fillon called on his supporters to “resist” and to show their backing for his campaign. “Don’t let anybody steal this choice from you, I ask you to resist,” he said in a video message posted on his Twitter account, calling for a large turnout on Sunday.

Reuters

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