Defiant Fillon draws thousands for ‘last chance’ Paris rally – but is it too late?

Under-fire François Fillon rallied tens of thousands of supporters in Paris on Sunday in what was seen as a make or break day for his bid for the French presidency. Fillon vowed to carry on but behind the scenes his party appears to be making moves to replace him.

Defiant Fillon draws thousands for 'last chance' Paris rally - but is it too late?
Photo: AFP

“They say that I'm on my own. They want me to be on my own,” Fillon said, thanking the tens of thousands, including his wife Penelope, who had turned up to support him.

“Never give up the fight,” he told them whilst once again delivering a combative speech in which he defied the pressure to quit the French presidential campaign.

With dozens of members of his own party deserting Fillon's campaign, Sunday's rally on the Trocadero plaza opposite the Eiffel Tower was seen as a test of how much confidence remains in the candidate.

Speaking to those members of his party who had deserted him since he admitted he was to be charged over allegations he gave his wife and children “fake jobs”, the conservative said: “I have examined my conscience… they need to examine theirs.”

Fillon also admitted he had made “mistakes” and apologized to his supporters, telling them they had been forgotten amid the judicial investigation.  

“My first mistake was asking my wife to work for me,” he said, adding his “second mistake” was hesitating before speaking to his supporters about the allegations.

Organizers of the rally said 200,000 Fillon supporters were present by around 3pm – but police will likely have a very different figure, which will almost certainly be lower.

The figure of 200,000 was mocked on social media, with many pointing out that the plaza only fits a maximum of 50,000 people.

Whatever the true number, the Trocadero plaza was awash with thousands of French Tricolore flags, waved by supporters who had come from all over the country to defend their candidate.

Many spoke of the need to defend Fillon's programme suggesting, his plan for France was more important to them than the allegations he had helped his wife earn hundreds of thousands of euros for a “fake job” as a parliamentary assistant.

The crowd chanted “Fillon president!”, “Fillon hold on, France is behind you!” and sang numerous renditions of the Marseillaise.

“They attack me from everywhere. But I have to listen to this enormous crowd that pushed me forward,” said Fillon.

As he spoke the heavens opened and the rain, which had stopped briefly, began to fall again. A sea of umbrellas replaced the tricolores.

But even if the images of thousands of supporters will give Fillon ammunition to those who doubt him, his fate may be taken out of his hands by his own party.  

The Republicans party knows the danger is that an election that they once expected to win handily could slip away if Fillon remains their candidate.

Polls currently show he could be eliminated in the first round of the two-stage contest on April 23, leaving Le Pen and Macron to contest the May 7 runoff.

The Republicans' decision-making body is to meet Monday evening — a day earlier than planned — “to evaluate the situation”, the party said Saturday.

On Sunday it emerged that former president Nicolas Sarkozy and Alain Juppé, the man beat by Fillon in November's primary had talked on the phone to “discuss a way out of the crisis”.

Several other heavyweights in the Republicans party have also been meeting to discuss the way forward. Christian Estrosi, the president of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region said a “respectful initiative” would be taken to persuade Fillon to step aside and allow Juppé to run in his place.

Many in his party resent the fact that Fillon initially said he would step down if charged over the fake jobs allegations, but then went back on his word.

He is due to meet magistrates on March 15th where he is expected to be placed under formal investigation.

Whether he will still be the official candidate of France's right by the time he meets those judges is far from clear.

Over the next couple of days Fillon's fate will likely be resolved.

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Le Pen narrowly tops European election polls in France in blow for Macron

The far-right National Rally party led by Marine Le Pen finished top in European elections in France on Sunday, dealing a blow to pro-European President Emmanuel Macron.

Le Pen narrowly tops European election polls in France in blow for Macron
Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella. Photo: AFP

Results released on Monday morning by the Ministry of the Interior, which have yet to be formally verified and declared by the National Voting Commission, showed that the far right Rassemblement National (RN) party topped the polls with 23.3 percent of the vote, beating French president Emmanuel Macron's La Republique En Marche.

They were closely followed by Macron's party, which polled 22.4 percent.

Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron at a polling station in Le Touquet earlier on Sunday. Photo: AFP

The allocation of seats in the European Parliament has been complicated for France by the UK's delayed departure from the EU.

The Parliament had already decided that after Brexit, some of the seats that had been occupied by British MEPs would be reallocated to other countries, with France set to gain an extra five seats

However, last minute delays to Brexit meant that the UK had to take part in the elections, with the result that France will not gain its extra seats until Britain leaves the EU.

On last night's polling results, the RN will get 22 seats in the European parliament immediately, and an extra seat once Britain leaves.

Macron's LREM will get 21 seats now and 23 after the UK leaves.

The green party lead by Yannick Jadot was placed third with 13.4 percent of the vote, gaining 12 seats now and 13 after Brexit. 

The two parties that between them had dominated French politics for decades until the rise of Macron both polled in single figures. Nicolas Sarkozy's old party Les Republicains polled 8.4 percent, while the Socialist party of Francois Hollande was on 6.31 percent, winning them eight and six seats respectively.

Meanwhile the 'yellow vest' candidates scored just 0.54 percent of the vote, below the Animalist party which polled 2.17 percent.

Nathalie Loiseau with LREM party workers. Photo: AFP

Although a total of 34 parties fielded candidates in the European elections in France, the election had largely been framed as a contest between Macron and Le Pen.

Macron's La Republique En Marche party, its list headed by former Europe Minister Nathalie Loiseau, was contesting its first European elections.

Marine Le Pen, on the other hand, was hoping to replicate her 2014 European election victory with her Rassemblement National party, its list headed by a political novice, the 23-year-old Jordan Bardella. Bardella called the results a “failure” for the LREM ruling party and sought to portray Macron's defeat as a rejection by voters of his pro-business agenda in France and pro-EU vision.

Macron had made no secret of the significance he attached to the results, telling regional French newspapers last week that the EU elections were the most important for four decades as the union faced an “existential threat”.

Jordan Bardella, head of the RN list. Photo: AFP

He has jumped into the campaign himself in recent weeks, appearing alone on an election poster in a move that analysts saw as exposing him personally if LREM underperformed.

The score of the National Rally is slightly below the level of 2014 when it won 24.9 percent, again finishing top.

Le Pen had placed herself towards the bottom of the RN list, so she will be returning to the European Parliament, where she served as an MEP from 2004 to 2017.

Turnout at the polls in France was the highest in recent years, with 50.12 percent of people voting, significantly up from 35.07 percent in 2014.

Veteran France reporter John Lichfield said: “After six months of 'yellow vest' rebellion, that Macron list has 22 percent is respectable. Much better than President Hollande did in 2014 (14.5 percent).

“But he made the election all about himself and lost. His hopes of emerging as de facto EU leader or enacting more French reforms are damaged.”