Republican candidate Francois Fillon vowed Wednesday to stay in the French presidential race even if charged with misuse of public funds, ending a tumultuous morning in which a canceled campaign event triggered speculation he would pull out.
A key adviser Bruno Le Maire, a former minister and rival in the Republican primary, quit the Fillon campaign, saying the candidate was breaking a pledge to withdraw from the race if he was charged.
The candidate has been called in to speak to judges on March 15 as part of an investigation for possible abuses when he hired his wife, Penelope, as his parliamentary assistant. Such a summons is normally the first step in being charged, a fact that Fillon himself acknowledged. The date is two days before the deadline for registering to be a presidential candidate.
“Yes, I will be a candidate for the French presidency,” Fillon said from his campaign headquarters in Paris. “Only universal suffrage can decide who will be the next president. I won’t give in.”
A chaotic morning saw Fillon’s campaign team left waiting at the agricultural show when the 62-year-old former prime minister failed to show up, the latest debacle in a campaign that has seen him drop from front-runner to third place in less than two months. The latest twist comes with polls showing centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron on course to beat far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in the run-off on May 7, with Fillon eliminated in the first round of the most open election in living memory.
“From this point, everything is in play,” Bruno Jeanbart, deputy CEO of pollster OpinionWay, said in an interview. “This could lead to a new transfer of votes from the right to the extreme right. We will see between tomorrow and Monday.”
Macron is one point behind Le Pen for the first round and would beat her in the run off, according to OpinionWay’s daily tracking poll Wednesday.
The extra yield on French 10-year bonds compared with German bunds narrowing by 4 basis point to 64 basis points at 1:55 p.m. in Paris.
“The market is more comfortable with the case where you have a run-off between Macron and Le Pen and that’s helping the spread tighten,” Luca Cazzulani, a strategist at UniCredit Group SpA in Milan, said by phone. “Whether the tightening is something of real substance is probably something that needs to be assessed in the coming days.”
At the beginning of January, Fillon was favorite to be France’s next president. Then prosecutors in Paris decided to investigate media reports that his wife had earned almost 1 million euros ($1.1 million) in public wages over several years without actually doing any proper work. His polling numbers dropped by about 5 percentage points to 20 percent and haven’t recovered, leaving Macron in pole position.
Fillon’s last-minute cancellation of a visit to the Paris farm show triggered a wave of speculation about the latest problem to shake his troubled campaign with his aides unable to offer any insight into what was happening. French media said that the candidate was facing pressure to withdraw from party grandees and Mediapart corrected a report that Penelope Fillon had been taken into custody before his briefing finally began half an hour late.
In a televised statement, Fillon intensified his complaints about the prosecutors’ probe, saying that it was unprecedented for a suspect to be charged so quickly, or at such a crucial stage of an election campaign.
He’s already demanded to know why the allegations came out just weeks before the election, when some of the facts date back to the 1990s. The candidate, who maintains that his wife was properly employed as his assistant, said in February he would maintain his bid for the presidency even if prosecutors open a formal investigation, contradicting an earlier pledge.
“I didn’t misuse public funds,” Fillon said, pointing to irregularities in an investigation he labeled a “political assassination.”
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