* Conservative candidate says he has most ambitious
* Advisers, backers uneasy as financial scandal worsens
* Mass rally planned on Sunday in Paris to support Fillon
* Party committee to meet Monday to discuss situation
By Sophie Louet and John Irish
AUBERVILLIERS, France, March 4 Embattled French
presidential candidate Francois Fillon defended his political
plans on Saturday as the only credible future for the country
and vowed to stay in the race, a day before a Paris rally called
to demonstrate the strength of his support.
Once the frontrunner, conservative Fillon is mired in a
scandal over his wife's pay, and his campaign has been in
serious trouble since he learned this week that he could be
placed under formal investigation for misuse of public funds.
After a string of resignations among advisers and backers,
the 63-year old former prime minister is banking on a rally of
supporters in Paris on Sunday to show his detractors that he
remains their best hope to win the presidency.
"Brick by brick, I have prepared an ambitious programme, the
only one in my eyes that can restore France's vitality," he told
a rally north of Paris aimed at outlining his vision for the
"I am being attacked, but through me what they are trying to
attack is the national recovery and a will to change that you
all want. Don't abdicate! Don't give up!" he said.
Opinion polls continue to show he would fail to make the
second round of the April/May election, however. Instead,
centrist Emmanuel Macron is consolidating his position as
favourite to win a second-round head-to-head against far-right
National Front candidate Marine Le Pen.
The political committee of Fillon's The Republicans party
brought forward to Monday a meeting to evaluate the candidate's
situation just 50 days from the election's first round, the
party said in a statement on Saturday.
Fillon suffered more blows on Friday when his campaign chief
Patrick Stefanini and chief spokesman Thierry Solere both quit
and the centre-right party UDI withdrew its support.
A social conservative with a deep attachment to his Catholic
roots, Fillon has promised radical reforms to the heavily
regulated economy, promising to roll back the state and slash
government's bloated costs.
A poll published on Friday may also have rattled the Fillon
camp. It showed that if he were to step down and be replaced by
fellow former prime minister Alain Juppe, then Juppe would make
it to the run-off and eliminate Le Pen in the process.
"The pilot is in the cockpit, the door is locked so it's
difficult to talk with him, but we don't want the plane to
crash," Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, a senator from Fillon's The
Republicains party told LCI television on Saturday.
Bruno Le Maire, Fillon's former adviser on international
affairs, who resigned after the candidate revealed he could be
placed under formal investigation, said on Saturday that Juppe
was the obvious choice.
Fillon has denied any wrongdoing and complained of judicial
and media bias that amounted to a "political assassination". His
attack on the judiciary in particular has caused unease within
His backers are organising a demonstration of up to 45,000
people on Sunday to show he still carries favour among the
grassroots after easily defeating Juppe in a November party
The rally has worried some within right-wing ranks over
fears that it will be hijacked by hardline conservative
"It's making me uncomfortable," said Christian Estrosi, the
right-wing president of France's southeastern region.
"At a time when we're fighting the National Front, I don't
want the ideals carried by my party to be led astray. This rally
also seems to want to defy the institutions of our country, and
that's not possible."
(Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau; Editing by Hugh