French conservative candidate Francois Fillon battled to keep his presidential bid afloat on Saturday by unveiling his policy platform in the eye of a storm over a fake jobs scandal.
Marking his 63rd birthday, Fillon is trying to turn the page on a nightmare week that saw scores of defections from his camp after he admitted he will face criminal charges in the case.
Such is the onetime election frontrunner's growing isolation that the left-leaning Liberation daily wrote: "It is no longer the rats leaving a sinking ship, but the ship leaving the rat."
Accusations that Fillon gave bogus parliamentary jobs to his wife Penelope have engulfed his tilt for power.
As the defections mounted, seven weeks before the first round of the two-stage vote takes place on April 23, the entourage of 71-year-old veteran Alain Juppe said he was prepared to take over as champion of the Republicans party.
Juppe, a former premier who was given a suspended jail sentence in 2004 over a party funding scandal, was beaten by Fillon in the conservative primary in November.
Fillon will try to wrest back the initiative with Saturday's policy speech, followed by a rally on Sunday near the Eiffel Tower.
Despite a forecast of heavy rain, Fillon's campaign is hoping for massive turnout, helped by the organising prowess of groups such as Manif Pour Tous, which staged a huge protest against gay marriage in October.
Fillon is a devout Catholic and his surprise win in the Republicans' November primary was widely attributed to his conservative social views.
In an upbeat online video message urging supporters to attend Sunday's rally, Fillon said only he could "restore France's strength".
Before the allegations first surfaced in January, Fillon was the clear leader in opinion polls.
But he has been overtaken by the youthful pro-business centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen -- whose poll numbers are largely holding up despite her own fake jobs scandal.
Defying much of mainstream opinion, Fillon has claimed to be the victim of a "political assassination" attempt, declaring he will place his future in the hands of the French people.
His headline policy is a pledge to cut public spending by slashing half a million civil servants' jobs.
On Friday, a member of Juppe's entourage told AFP he was prepared to take over -- though he will have to scramble to collect the 500 signatures needed for his candidacy by a March 15 deadline.
The unnamed source said Juppe would run only if Fillon makes the decision to pull out himself, "and the rightwing and centre camps... have to be united behind him".
However dire things look for Fillon, Juppe could be ruled out because he has less appeal to rightwing traditionalists
But an opinion poll on Friday showed Juppe -- viewed as more centrist than Fillon -- would vault into the lead if he stood.
Juppe would have 26.5 percent of votes, giving him a narrow lead over Macron on 25 percent, while Le Pen would slip to third place on 24 percent, according to the Odoxa-Dentsu Consulting poll of 943 people.
April's first round of the election is followed by a runoff on May 7 between the first- and second-place candidates, if no contender garners an outright majority.
Le Pen, 48, campaigning on an anti-immigration and anti-EU platform, is forecast to reach the second round of a contest influenced by the same populist themes that propelled US President Donald Trump to power and led to the Brexit vote in Britain.
Polls currently show however that Le Pen will be beaten in the runoff by either the fast-rising Macron, 39, or the conservative candidate.
Other possible presidents, such as leftist Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon, are angry that Fillon's scandal is "saturating the discourse."
"We can't debate the issues," he complained.