PARIS (AP) — Deepening the crisis among France's conservatives, former French Prime Minister Alain Juppe firmly declined Monday to step into the country's presidential race to rescue his party's chances in the event that embattled Francois Fillon withdraws his damaged bid.
Once the front-runner in France's two-round, April-May presidential race, Fillon's prospects are imploding as he faces possible corruption charges on March 15 for arranging government-paid jobs for his wife and two of his children. Top allies have left his campaign and the situation has created a deep chasm among French right-wingers.
Moments after former President Nicolas Sarkozy called for a meeting with both Fillon and Juppe, the Bordeaux mayor who was defeated by Fillon in the conservative primary said he would not be 'Plan B' for their Republicans party.
"It's too late," he told reporters, accusing Fillon of leading the French right into a political "dead end" with his stubbornness in claiming that he is the victim of a political plot.
"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."
Republicans party members have become even more anxious after a poll released Sunday suggested that Juppe would have a better chance at reaching the presidential runoff than Fillon.
Fillon's image of honesty, which helped him secure the Republicans' nomination, has been severely dented since the scandal broke. Polls are now suggesting that far-right leader Marine Le Pen and centrist independent candidate Emmanuel Macron will come out on top in the first-round presidential vote on April 23. The top two vote-getters there go on to compete in the May 7 presidential runoff.
"I don't intent to engage in partisan bargaining for positions," Juppe said. "I'm not in a position today to achieve the required unity behind a unifying project. I confirm, once and for all, that I will not bid for French president. "
Juppe agreed to meet with Sarkozy and Fillon but their encounter — date and time unknown — is not expected to be fruitful now that Juppe has ruled himself out. Juppe's decision, however, does not end the political negotiations within the divided party, with its political committee holding an urgent meeting later Monday.
Another right-wing former prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, added his voice to the critics, telling BFM TV station that he would not vote for Fillon.
In a statement Monday, Sarkozy said the party's current divisions are only adding to support for the far-right.
"Our divisions will pave the way for the far-right," Sarkozy said, adding this situation "can't last and is creating deep unease among French people."
In an interview with Le Monde newspaper, President Francois Hollande, an unpopular Socialist who decided not to run for a second term, also warned about the risks of Le Pen's winning the election.
"The far-right has never been so high in more than 30 years. But France won't cave in," Hollande said.
Fillon said last week he was summoned to appear before judges on March 15 for allegedly using taxpayers' money to pay family members for jobs that may not have existed. He denies any wrongdoing and claims to be the victim of a conspiracy orchestrated by his rivals.
Fillon initially said he would step down if charged, but backpedaled on his pledge after being summoned to face charges.
In her first interview since the scandal broke, his wife Penelope 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."