French conservatives in crisis as candidate Fillon flounders

PARIS (AP) " For France's conservatives, this year's presidential election should have been effortless.

Instead, the Republicans party " once all but certain to take back the Elysee Palace in 2017 " is in disarray over the corruption-tainted campaign of its candidate Francois Fillon. Riven by dissent as Fillon tenaciously clings to his bid, the conservatives are watching their presidential hopes sink by the day.

Far-right nationalists, meanwhile, are gearing up for what they hope is their Donald Trump moment, in which National Front leader Marine Le Pen proves the pollsters wrong and harnesses the anti-immigration, anti-establishment sentiment percolating around Europe to capture a presidential victory.

In this prediction-defying French presidential campaign, anything could still happen between now and April 23, when the voting begins.

One thing is clear: The conservatives are in trouble. And no one is eager to take Fillon's place with less than seven weeks left to campaign.

Many conservatives had pinned their hopes on former Prime Minister Alain Juppe to step in and save their party's chances " but on Monday he definitively rejected that poisoned chalice.

"It's too late," he told reporters, accusing Fillon, who beat him in the conservative primary, of leading the French right into a political "dead end."

"What a waste," Juppe said. "Last week I received many calls asking me to take over. They made me hesitate, I thought about it. Today, uniting everyone has become even more difficult. ... I confirm, once and for all, that I will not bid to be the French president."

It's a remarkable about-face for him and his party.

A year ago, Juppe was considered a shoo-in for the 2017 presidential race. Socialist President Francois Hollande's record-setting unpopularity all but guaranteed that France's other main political force, the conservative Republicans, would take back power.

Then Fillon, promising tougher security and pro-business economic reforms, shot up and wrested the conservative primary from the more moderate Juppe in November.

That made Fillon the front-runner in polls - until January, when he was accused of arranging taxpayer-funded jobs for his wife and two of his children that they never performed. He insists the jobs were not fake, but Fillon now faces possible charges on March 15.

Top allies have fled his campaign and the situation has created a deep chasm among French right-wingers.

Some party leaders tightened ranks around Fillon at an urgent committee meeting Monday, apparently giving up on finding an alternative hopeful.

Bernard Accoyer, the party's secretary general, said The Republicans are behind their candidate "with a new impulse" and that they "are ready again to go into battle and have relaunched the campaign." It may however be too late.

And now France's entire two-party system may be upended.

Current polls suggest that for the first time in modern French history, neither the Socialists nor the Republicans may make it past the first-round vote on April 23. The top two vote-getters there then advance to the May 7 presidential runoff.

Instead, the far-right Le Pen and the centrist independent candidate Emmanuel Macron are favored to lead the first round of voting, and Macron is favored to win the presidency.

While unlikely, a Le Pen win would send shockwaves across Europe. It could rattle markets around the world and spell the end of decades of post-war European unity, as she is keen to extract France from the 28-nation EU, its shared euro currency and its free-travel zone.

Fearing that prospect, French voters have turned their attention to Macron, a telegenic 39-year-old former investment banker and economy minister with no party backing who champions startups. A big plus is that Macron lacks his rivals' heavy baggage of decades in a political system tainted by corruption.

In hopes of saving the conservatives, former President Nicolas Sarkozy is trying to play kingmaker - even though he lost the presidency in 2012, came in an embarrassing third in the party primary for this year's race, and has faced his own campaign financing scandals.

Sarkozy said Monday he wants to gather Fillon and Juppe together for a meeting, but no one knows if that will make things better or worse.

"Our divisions will pave the way for the far-right," Sarkozy warned.

Hollande, in an interview with Le Monde newspaper, said, "The far-right has never been so high in more than 30 years. But France won't cave in."

Le Pen is facing her own legal investigations, but they don't appear to be denting her popularity. Instead, they feed into her arguments that she is being unfairly targeted by a rotten political establishment that is determined to cling to power.

The conservatives' troubles are even drowning out the cacophony on the French left, which has been unable to unite behind one candidate.

Hollande enjoys so little respect that he declined to seek a second term - a first in modern French history.

His party's candidate, Socialist Benoit Hamon, probably won't even make it past the first round either. He's facing a raft of other left-wing candidates who don't want to give up their own presidential ambitions and rally around his cause.

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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