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France’s Fillon clings to presidential race, admits errors

PARIS — With the Eiffel Tower as a backdrop, French conservative Francois Fillon clung tenaciously to his presidential candidacy Sunday, urging thousands of supporters at a high-stakes rally not to flee his ship despite escalating pressure to step aside because of impending corruption charges.

Fillon’s low-profile Welsh wife Penelope — accused of earning a generous taxpayer-funded salary for years for jobs she never performed — took an unusually public place at his side at Sunday’s rally. She waved a tricolor flag as crowds chanted “Fillon, President!” and “We will win!”

The presidential candidate for the Republicans party acknowledged errors in judgment but insisted he was being unfairly targeted in an election season. He also assailed conservative allies who have abandoned his campaign in recent days, throwing his candidacy into doubt.

The scandal has highlighted entrenched corruption in French politics. Those former conservative allies are disillusioned by how Fillon has handled the investigation into allegations he arranged fake parliamentary assistant jobs for his wife and two of his children.

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If Fillon quits or is forced out by his party, that would plunge France’s already unpredictable presidential campaign into unprecedented disarray, with just seven weeks before the first round of France’s two-round April-May presidential vote. Fillon was once the front-runner in the race, but his ratings have fallen since the jobs allegations were revealed by weekly Le Canard Enchaine in January.

Fillon showed no sign of backing down Sunday, however.

“You should not surrender to worry or anger,” he told the rally on Place de Trocadero, buffeted by rain and wind. He thanked “those of you who will never give up the fight, you who always refuse to listen to the siren calls of discouragement.”

Fillon is expected to speak on national television Sunday night, although he has canceled a radio interview for Monday morning. Fillon’s party, the Republicans, is holding a meeting of its political committee on Monday evening to evaluate the situation after Sunday’s rally.

The crowd was large but not enormous. Older people, Fillon’s most loyal voter base, constituted a large part of the rally, along with some parents of young children attracted by Fillon’s support for traditional Catholic family values.

Dozens of buses brought supporters in from around France, while riot police stood guard. Puzzled tourists took selfies of the crowd and the Eiffel Tower as a backdrop.

Hundreds of left-wing protesters held a counter-demonstration across town to denounce widespread political corruption among France’s political elite. Fillon had been a former prime minister.

Many conservatives want Alain Juppe, the runner-up to Fillon in the conservative primary, to run in Fillon’s place. Officially, however, the party has no “Plan B.” Juppe, another former prime minister, campaigned on a more moderate platform than the tough-on-security, pro-free market Fillon. Juppe has said he won’t run as a replacement but French media is recent days have reported he is warming to the possibility.

Polls now suggest far-right leader Marine Le Pen and centrist independent candidate Emmanuel Macron would come out on top in first vote on April 23. The top two vote-getters in that go on to compete in the May 7 presidential runoff.

Le Pen is riding high even thought she is at the center of several judicial inquiries along with her anti-immigration National Front party.

Fillon apologized Sunday to his supporters for having to concentrate on defending his family’s honor “while the most essential thing for you, as for me, is to defend our country.”

“I committed the first error in the past, in asking my wife to work for me. … I shouldn’t have done that,” he said. “And I committed the second in hesitating about the way to talk about it.”

In a speech littered with historical and literary references, he hailed “the France of the farmers, the France of cathedrals, chateaus … the France whose moral and military force stands up to terrorists and tyrants.”

Retirees Luc and Marie Houllier braved the blustery weather to denounce what they see as a politically-driven investigation.

“He is the only one who can raise France up again,” Luc said.

In her first interview since the scandal broke, Penelope Fillon urged her husband to stay in the race.

“Unlike the others, I will not abandon him,” Penelope Fillon was quoted as saying in the Journal du dimanche newspaper. “I told him to continue to the end.”

Financial prosecutors are investigating reports that she and two of their five children earned a total of more than 1 million euros in taxpayer-funded jobs as parliamentary aides that they never carried out. It’s legal in France to hire relatives for public jobs, but they must actually do the work.

The Fillons insist they did.

Fillon initially said he would step down if charged, but decided Wednesday to maintain his candidacy even though he’s been summoned to face charges on March 15.

French officials over the years have faced scores of corruption allegations. Even Juppe, the potential savior of conservative chances, was convicted in 2004 for an illegal party funding scheme and barred from elected office for a year.

Elaine Ganley contributed to this report.

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