François Fillon, the beleaguered conservative candidate in the French presidential election, faced protesters as he began a three-day campaign tour to France’s Indian Ocean island of Réunion on Saturday.
He made a stage-managed appearance before a crowd at a solar power centre, kissing women on the cheeks, but police had to stop fist-fights between his supporters and a small but noisy group of protesters outside.
Some held placards reading "Give us the money back”, a reference to allegations that his British wife Penelope was paid €800,000 for a parliamentary job she never did.
With Mr Fillon mired in scandal, many conservatives are now growing jittery about the previously unthinkable possibility of a victory by the far-Right populist Marine Le Pen. Her long-standing lead in the polls has risen to 26 per cent, although she is still forecast to lose the second round vote.
In Sablé-sur-Sarthe, the idyllic Loire country town where Mr Fillon launched his political career, former supporters angrily condemned his refusal to stand aside from the presidential race.
"François Fillon betrayed the trust we placed in him,” said Didier Hutin, who fears he will cause the Right to lose the election in two months.
Mr Fillon, who wants Thatcherite economic reforms and sweeping public sector cuts, won more than 90 per cent of the town’s vote in the centre-Right primary in November. Before the scandal, he was seen as almost certain to become the next president.
"If we had to hold another vote with everything we now know, the result would be nowhere near the same,” Mr Hutin said. "Fillon began his career in Sablé. I fear that he may also end it in Sablé.”
Despite the town’s location in the prosperous Loire country, its château and charming timber-framed houses, some dating back to the 15th century, few of its residents are wealthy.
"Many people here are working for close to the minimum wage and they find it hard to understand how someone declared as a parliamentary aide can earn so much money,” Mr Hutin said.
In an apparent attempt to scare off the multitude of critics in his own camp, Mr Fillon said that if he gave up, his supporters were more likely to vote for Ms Le Pen than for the centrist independent Emmanuel Macron, 39, who has been left the frontrunner by Mr Fillon’s plunge into third place.
Ms Le Pen scored a record TV audience of 3.5 million viewers when she appeared on a flagship politics show last week.
Her anti-EU stance and plans to pull France out of the euro and reinstate the franc may deter some voters, but her anti-immigration policies resonate with many after a string of terrorist attacks.
Mr Fillon’s efforts to climb back have faltered as commentators judged his apology last week for employing his wife and children half-hearted.His poll ratings slipped below 18 per cent. Surprisingly, the radical Socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, rose to 15 per cent.
Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen, 48, both cast themselves as the saviour of the nation in campaign videos last week. Ms Le Pen emphasised her role as a mother and sought to portray herself as being close to working people.
In keeping with her slogan, "In the Name of the People,” she claimed her children were attending state schools and her son was in a class for children destined for apprenticeships. However, French media pointed out that her daughter was being privately educated at a private Catholic-run school.
Mr Macron’s video was in English, which the former Rothschild banker speaks fluently. Ostensibly aimed at persuading American scientists and entrepreneurs who are fed up with Donald Trump to settle in France, its real intention appeared to be to convince French voters that Mr Macron, a relative newcomer to politics, would revive the stagnant economy if elected.
However, his reluctance to unveil detailed policy proposals makes him increasingly vulnerable, and has been repeatedly targeted by Ms Le Pen.
Polls suggest that many voters would like Mr Macron to win, but prefer Mr Fillon’s policies.
Ms Le Pen has launched a media blitz, talking about her plans for government and rallying an army of young supporters to focus on social networks in an attempt to replicate Donald Trump’s success.