PARIS (Reuters) - Scandal-hit French presidential candidate Francois Fillon came under renewed attack from within his own conservative camp on Wednesday as he sought to hold his campaign together through talks with ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy.
Rebel conservative lawmaker Georges Fenech said voters were deserting their party, The Republicans, and it faced defeat in the April-May election unless it ditched Fillon.
Fenech has been one of the strongest anti-Fillon voices since the former prime minister’s campaign was knocked off track by a scandal over his use of public funds to employ his wife as a parliamentary assistant.
With 10 weeks to go until the election, his place as favourite has been taken by centrist Emmanuel Macron, while far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen has also gained ground.
“I’d love to be wrong, but I can’t believe any more because I can see on the ground the reaction of the voters. They don’t want to vote for us any more,” Fenech told Radio Classique.
He was speaking a day after leading a failed bid to force a meeting of the party’s executive that could have challenged Fillon’s decision to continue his presidential bid.
Fenech, a Sarkozy loyalist in a party riven by rival factions, referred to a meeting this week between Fillon and his camp as one of “mutual congratulation” in which “nobody wants to tell him the truth - or very few people”.
“With that as a starting point, we are going to the wall,” he said. “There are other people in our party who are respectable, young and have the capacity to run the country.”
Fillon had been the favourite to win the presidency until allegations in a newspaper three weeks ago that his wife did very little work for the hundreds of thousands of euros in taxpayers’ money that she received as his aide.
He says it was a real job, and denies doing anything wrong.
An official inquiry has been launched.
Fillon on Wednesday held a lunch meeting with Sarkozy, a key figure in the party who commands the loyalty of a faction on its right, and whom he beat to the presidential ticket in a primary election in November.
Speculation was that Fillon had sought from Sarkozy an assurance that he would keep his rebels in check.
A source in Fillon’s camp said after the lunch meeting that the meeting had taken place in “a warm atmosphere”.
“It is normal to take stock of things with the former president in the context of a very difficult general, political, economic, social and international situation,” the source said.
There was no statement from Sarkozy.
Fillon later returned to the campaign trail with a rally in northern France. In a speech he made no mention of the family scandal dogging his bid for the Elysee, but scorned the programmes of his rivals.
He particularly focused on Macron who is his biggest rival for a runoff place against Le Pen, zeroing in on a comment the centrist made about France’s colonial past.
“This dislike of our history, this continual repentance is unworthy of a candidate for the presidency of the Republic,” he said in Compiegne, northern France.
He went on to defend his programme for economic recovery which includes extending the working week in the public sector to 39 hours from 35 and slashing numbers of civil servants.
Daily opinion polls show Le Pen winning the April 23 first round vote and Macron just ahead of Fillon for the second-place prize of facing her in a May 7 run-off.
Either of the two men are seen winning that run-off, with around six out of 10 votes, but with Macron enjoying a bigger margin of victory.
Uncertainty about the election outcome, in particular concern about a win for the anti-euro, anti-EU Le Pen, has been affecting European debt markets, even though in a Reuters poll of 42 economists published on Wednesday, 90 percent said they believed a win for her was unlikely.
Additional reporting by Richard Balmforth in Paris; Editing by Alison Williams and Matthew Lewis