Franois Fillon offers modicum of contrition in defiant rally address

French presidential candidate tries to paint himself as victim in fake jobs scandal as he accuses those abandoning him of treason

There was rain, there was sun. There was defiance followed by contrition, talk of support and betrayal, and from the crowd cheers and tears as there has been for weeks. In the end, the beleaguered French presidential candidate Franois Fillon was still standing.

At a hastily convened rally in central Paris, supporters waved tricolore flags and chanted as the man who embodies the hopes of the French centre right took the stage under a volatile sky that perfectly summed up the political mood in France.

Beside Fillon stood his British-born wife, Penelope, the central figure in the fake jobs scandal that has created the storm around a man who only months ago appeared a sure bet for the Elyse Palace.

It is a scandal that has seen the couple questioned by police and put under preliminary investigation, and about 250 MPs from his own side urge him to stand down.

On Sunday, in a desperate attempt to remain in the race, and with just 50 days to go before the first round, Fillon, 63, took to the stage at Place du Trocadro to deliver a 30-minute address that contained a bit of everything. They thought I was alone. They want me to be alone. Are we alone? he asked the crowd.

They attack me everywhere and I must, in conscience, listen to you, this immense crowd pushing me on. But I must also ask myself about those who doubt and are abandoning the ship. They bear an immense responsibility, as do I.

Fillon spoke of the treason of those who had abandoned him, but also delivered a mea culpa for the scandal that has shaken his campaign. Last Wednesday, Fillon admitted that he had been summoned by judges to be formally investigated over allegations that he had paid his wife and two children hundreds of thousands of euros of taxpayers money for jobs that, allegedly, did not exist.

The couple have always denied any wrongdoing: in her first interview since the scandal broke in January, Penelope Fillon told the Journal du Dimanche newspaper that she had indeed worked for her husband.

At the rally, her husband, however, admitted it was an error to employ her: I asked my wife to work for me because she knew the ground, because it was convenient I shouldnt have done so. His second mistake, he said, was to have hesitated about how to speak to you, the French, about it.

Believe me, when one believes oneself to be a profoundly honest man, when one has spent ones life in the service of public interest, to try to take decisions one believes are fair day after day, its difficult to face such a campaign. On one side, considering the wish for morality, it seems fair, on the other side, with the excessiveness, the disproportion [of the attacks], the hatred, it seems unfair.

He added: I have often bolstered myself by saying that the day when I am shown as being innocent by the judges those who were quick to accuse me will be ashamed. The problem is that by then it will be too late. The election will have been distorted.

As he spoke, the crowds gathered in the square around the statue of the military hero Marshal Ferdinand Foch, urged their man to battle on.

Fillon also painted himself as a victim of a vicious and unjust witch-hunt in order to break the right; to steal its vote.

I have become the target for everything, to denigrate me personally has saturated the news Even if the accusations against me are unjust, revolting, being misused, I must apologise for having to defend my honour and that of my wife when for you, and for me, the most important thing is to defend our country.

He concluded: Ive examined my conscience I wouldnt wish anyone to have to do the same in such circumstances. I call on members of my political family. Its for you now to examine your consciences.

The Fillon team said 200,000 supporters attended the rally. The media said 50,000. Photograph: Geoffroy van der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images

One woman, who had risen at 6am on Sunday morning to travel from eastern France to show her support, told journalists: We believe in Franois Fillon. We think he had the best programme and we dont like whats happened to him.

Another supporter said: I dont care what hes done. I support his programme. Asked if she was convinced by Fillons apology, she added: He can say sorry to whomever he wants he doesnt need to apologise to me.

As arguments raged over how many supporters had turned up team Fillon said 200,000, the media 50,000 the crowd sang the Marseillaise, waved tricolores and chanted: Fillon, stay strong, France needs you.

Whatever the true attendance figure, it was clear that Frances centre right is now deeply divided. Agence France-Presse reported that former president Nicolas Sarkozy and former prime minister Alain Jupp had spoken over the weekend to draw up a plan of action to get out of the crisis.

Later, he told French TV news: No one can stop me being candidate, adding that he said he was innocent in legal termsHe said there was no alternative to him running as the rights candidate for the presidency.

An emergency meeting is being held by Fillons centre-right party, Les Rpublicains, on Monday. Jupp has announced he will make a statement to the press at 10.30am.

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