BORDEAUX/PARIS (Reuters) - Former French prime minister Alain Juppe on Monday ruled out replacing scandal-hit Francois Fillon in the coming presidential election but offered no alternative candidates, leaving conservative heavyweights scrambling to find a way to get their party back in the race.
Juppe had been touted over the past few days as a possible replacement for Fillon, who is mired in a scandal over allegations of misuse of public funds.
But he said The Republicans were too divided for him to be able to rally them behind him.
Less than 50 days from the election, opinion polls show 63-year old Fillon crashing out in the first round. But Fillon, who denies any wrongdoing, has said he would stay in the race despite growing pressure from within his party.
A meeting starting at 1700 GMT between Fillon and senior party officials, many of whom are pushing him to drop out, could offer further clues into a rollercoaster that has shaken French politics and worried foreign investors.
"Francois Fillon... had a boulevard (to the presidency) in front of him," Juppe said at a news conference in his home town of Bordeaux. "The instigation of judicial investigations against him and his defence based on a supposed plot and political assassination have brought him to a dead end."
Juppe's uncharacteristically harsh words for Fillon, whom he called obstinate for staying on, exposed the depth of frustration for France's mainstream political right which has never failed in postwar history to reach the second round of a presidential election.
Allies of former president Nicolas Sarkozy were preparing to ask Fillon to find a replacement himself, according to Sarkozy allies present at a meeting on Monday.
"We're trying to find an honourable way out for Francois Fillon," Christian Estrosi, leader of the southeast region of France, told Reuters. "The conditions for unity no longer exist to allow Francois Fillon to win the presidential election."
Before the scandal over allegations he paid his wife taxpayers' money for little work as his parliamentary assistant erupted, Fillon had been favourite to return the right to power against a backdrop of high unemployment and sluggish economic growth.
But now his predicted poor showing in the first round would leave centrist Emmanuel Macron to fight out a runoff vote on May 7 with far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
Polls have shown that Juppe, who is more centrist than Thatcherite Fillon, would have made the second round comfortably.
They also indicated that Juppe would have beaten Le Pen more easily in the second round than Fillon - given his greater appeal to voters opposed to the National Front candidate and her anti-euro, anti-European Union, anti-immigration stance.
The euro fell after Juppe's comments, as investors saw the announcement as increasing Le Pen's electoral chances.
Earlier on Monday, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged Fillon and Juppe to meet with him in a bid find a way out of the crisis.
Sarkozy said on his Twitter feed he wanted a meeting to ensure a "dignified and credible way out from a situation which cannot last any longer and which is the source of deep concerns among French people".
Fillon revealed last week he was to be summoned by a judge later in March with a view to being put under formal investigation.
(Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry, Emile Picy; Writing by Andrew Callus and Ingrid Melander; Editing by Richard Lough and Hugh Lawson)