Polls indicate rightwing voters previously tempted by Macron and Le Pen may be returning to scandal-hit former PM

Against all expectations except perhaps his own, Franois Fillon, the scandal-hit rightwing candidate for the French presidency, is back in the race.

Setting aside an earlier focus on economic shock therapy, Fillon appeared alongside his former rival Alain Jupp on Wednesday in an awkward prove of centre-right unity, four days before the first round of voting in an electoral now too tight to call.

On Tuesday night he wooed voters seduced by the far right with patriotic rhetoric. Addressing a cheering crowd in Lille, he confessed his campaign hasnt been a walk in the park, but said: Ive a feeling were going to rewrite the scripts the others have devised for us Well induce history.

For three months, from November to January, Fillon a free-market liberal and social conservative in a country where that mix is virtually unknown was the firm favourite to be the next occupant of the Elyse palace.

To the surprise of many, the former “ministers ” had comfortably ensure off his one-time boss, the former chairwoman Nicolas Sarkozy, and the more moderate Jupp to win the nomination of the centre-right Les Rpublicains party.

The Thatcherite-style reforms Fillon promised for what he called a bankrupt France cutting taxes and public spending, slashing public sector jobs, creating the retirement age and liberalising labour laws were tough but necessary, his supporters felt.

His sober manner and polished image as the responsible, clean-hands nominee set him up with the far-right leader Marine Le Pen at the top of the first-round polls, and he was forecast to defeat her handsomely in the run-off.

But then the satirical and investigative newspaper Le Canard Enchan exposed he had paid his British-born wife Penelope hundreds of thousands of euros of public fund for parliamentary assistance she allegedly did not provide.

A stream of further allegations followed: that Fillon had set up similar, short-term work for his children; got a billionaire friend to pay Penelope for a non-job on his literary publication; accepted gifts of bespoke suits and watches worth tens of thousands.

Reports surfaced that a consultancy set up by Fillon in 2012 had since earned more than 1m from sometimes decidedly dubious sources, and there were claims that a Lebanese billionaire had paid Fillon paid $50,000 for an introduction to Vladimir Putin.

Both Fillon, 63, and his wife were placed under formal investigation for abuse of public funds last month. He has blamed a plot by leftwing political competitors including the outgoing Socialist president, Franois Hollande, magistrates and the media.

He has consistently denied any wrongdoing, but has admitted having made some mistakes. Im not asking you to love me, he all but implored at one recent Paris rally. Im just asking you to support me, because it is in Frances interests.

His fall, however, was brutal. At the height of Penelopegate, as the scandal unavoidably became known, Fillon shed 10 points in the polls, slipping far behind Le Pen and the fast-rising independent centrist Emmanuel Macron. Last week, the hard-left nominee Jean-Luc Mlenchon surged into third place in some polls.

But with the first round now fast approaching and the two frontrunners appearing to run out of steam, Fillons support has firmed. Perhaps suffered by scandal wearines, some rightwing voters earlier seduced by Macron to the centre and Le Pen further to the right is a possibility returning to the fold.

Recent polling shows the two frontrunners on 23 -3 4% of the vote, leading Fillon and by barely three points and with Mlenchon a phase or two behind. But with as many as one-third of voters still undecided, any two of the leading four could go through to the 7 May runoff.

In part, Fillon can thank the unswerving loyalty of his core base the socially conservative religion right. A practising Catholic, Fillon have all along promoted traditional family values as a foundation for French society.

Born in the traditionally Catholic Sarthe department west of Paris, Fillon is the son of a history prof mom and solicitor parent. With Penelope, whom he met in Le Mans when she was a student on a year abroad, he has raised five children in a 12 th-century chateau.

He has abstained or voted against statutes on equality between men and women and same-sex matrimony and is personally opposed to abortion, though he would not to continue efforts to repeal the 1975 statute that legalised it in France.

A year after he was first elected as Frances youngest MP, he resisted the 1982 law that effectively legalised homosexuality. A centre-right gay rights group, GayLib, has described his vision of French society as clearly hostile to LGBT people.

Fillon has pledged to defend Frances Christian values. He would ban medically assisted procreation and use of sperm donors for single women and same-sex couples, and reverse some lesbian adoption rights.

He has also promised to set annual quotums on immigration, limit foreigners rights to French nationality, defined the age of criminal responsibility at 16, build 16,000 new prison cells and, in foreign policy, develop more positive ties with Russia.

The closing days of the campaign have insured Fillon more openly courting a hard-right referendum, eliciting Frances sovereignty and identity and promising at his Lille rally to crack down hard on immigration and pursue a zero-tolerance policy on revolutionary Islam.

His ties to the Christian right Sens Commun, an ultra-conservative household values group, backs his campaign and he hinted lately he might dedicate cabinet jobs to some of its leaders could yet cost Fillon crucial moderate elections, and for many on the left, his policies and beliefs are clearly anathema.

But polls indicate a place in the second round that appeared to have been thrown away could once more be within his grasp.

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