Embattled conservative hopeful Francois Fillon Monday appeared to have fended off any immediate challenge to his position as candidate of the centre-right in the French presidential election.

The man seen as the most likely alternative candidate, defeated primary challenger and former premier Alain Juppe, categorically ruled out replacing Fillon, saying it was "too late for me."

Later in the day the political committee of Fillon's right-wing Les Republicains party met for an hour and a half before the president of the French senate, Gerard Larcher, emerged to say that it had unanimously confirmed its support for the candidate.

Fillon has sunk to third place in opinion polls since late January, when allegations first surfaced that his wife was paid from public funds as his parliamentary aide without doing any work.

He now stands behind far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and centrist former economy minister Emmanuel Macron, risking elimination in April's first round of voting.

Fillon's campaign had appeared doomed only a few days earlier, with key staffers quitting and dozens of lawmakers publicly renouncing their support for him after he revealed on Wednesday that he was likely to face charges over his wife's job.

But after a rally of thousands of supporters near the Eiffel Tower on Sunday and an energetic performance in an interview on national television in the evening, on Monday his candidacy seemed back on track.

His strongest card was the lack of any clear alternative candidate, and on Monday the only serious contender, Juppe, who lost the centre-right primary election to Fillon in November, made it clear that he was not interested in taking over.

Hinting with disdain at political jockeying inside Les Republicains, the mayor of Bordeaux said he was not interested in "partisan dealmaking or haggling over positions."

As a result, he said, he could not form "the necessary alliance around a unifying project, and therefore I confirm, once and for all, that I will not be a candidate for the presidency of the Republic."

Juppe also acknowledged that his own 2004 conviction for involvement in a party financing scandal meant he could not meet increasing demands that politicians be personally exemplary.

"I do not want to open up my honour and my family's peace to the destroyers of reputations," he said.

Juppe slammed Fillon's response to the allegations, saying that when his rival won the primary in November he had "the path [to the Elysee Palace] wide open before him."

"The start of the judicial investigations against him, and his defence based on denouncing a supposed plot and a planned political assassination, have led him into a dead end," Juppe charged.

Fillon has insisted that his wife genuinely worked for him, while arguing that the timing of a summons for him to appear before magistrates on March 15 and potentially face charges is an attempt to sabotage the centre-right's presidential campaign.

Juppe warned that Le Pen's "anti-European fanaticism" would lead France to disaster, while arguing that Macron's "political immaturity and the weakness of his programme won't fool people forever."

"As for us, the right and centre, what a mess!" he added.

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