PARIS (Reuters) - Senior French conservatives have told their struggling presidential candidate Francois Fillon to tone down the rhetoric, a party source said, after he repeatedly attacked the judiciary and claimed that TV channels had falsely reported his wife had committed suicide.
Fillon’s campaign has been reeling for weeks from allegations that his wife, Penelope, was paid taxpayers’ money for work she did not do. He has said the scandal and ensuing judicial investigation amount to a plot by his political opponents, and that the justice system has singled him out for special treatment.
His comments have disturbed moderate members of his conservative camp as his fortunes slide in opinion polls which show centrist Emmanuel Macron favorite to win a run-off of the top two candidates on May 7, beating far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen.
That discomfort was reinforced when, at a rally at the Trocadero in central Paris on Sunday, some of his supporters booed and whistled on cue as Fillon denounced the alleged conspiracy against him.
His conservative party, The Republicans, closed ranks behind him on Monday after a tense weekend in which some members had called for him to step down.
But a source who took part in a party meeting on Monday night said Fillon had been told to adopt a more moderate tone.
“If you want to bring the right and the center together then go ahead, without modifying your line, but leaving out the excessive sentiments, and we will support you,” the participant said, adding that Fillon had agreed to do so and “assemble a team uniting all talents and all sensitivities.”
Fillon had earlier suffered a blistering attack from fellow-conservative Alain Juppe that summed up the concerns of the moderates about his aggressive reaction to the judicial probe.
“His defense based on a supposed plot and political assassination has brought him to a dead end,” Juppe said. “As yesterday’s rally at the Trocadero shows, the core of The Republicans’ activists and sympathizers has become radicalized.”
Fillon, like politicians worldwide, has also said the media exaggerates his faults, but in an interview on France 2 television after Sunday’s rally, he made a specific claim that appeared to be false.
“My wife’s suicide was announced on Wednesday morning,” he said in the interview. “My wife’s suicide was announced on Wednesday morning on television channels.”
Reuters and French media were unable to find any such TV reports.
In a tweet on March 1, Madeleine de Jessey, spokeswoman of an ultra-conservative movement that backs Fillon’s campaign, referred to “journalists who announced... the suicide of Penelope,” but did not give any source.
L‘Obs magazine said the de Jessey tweet was what prompted Fillon to make the comment.
Fillon’s camp did not respond to specific questions about why he made the claim.
“It looks as if the Fillon camp is lapsing completely into exactly what they denounce - fake news,” said a report in online magazine Marianne on Monday.
The left-leaning Liberation daily weighed in too, saying “Fillon is in Trump-style alternative facts mode,” a reference to a phrase coined by President Donald Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway.
Additional reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta; Editing by Leigh Thomas and Mark Trevelyan