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Nicolas Sarkozy has convened a meeting with French centre-right presidential candidate François Fillon as part of intense party maneuvering to convince the embattled nominee to stand down.

The former president also asked Alain Juppé, who lost to Mr Fillon in party’s primary elections in November, to join the meeting intended to assess the Republican nominee’s chances of qualifying for the presidential run-off in May. Mr Fillon is expected to be placed under formal investigation – a step short of being charged – for claims he employed his wife and children in fictitious jobs as aides.

After vowing to continue running regardless of the judicial probe, the candidate has been hemorrhaging support in his own camp and party grandees have called for Mr Juppé to replace him.

Mr Sarkozy called for the meeting to “find a dignified and credible way out of a situation that cannot go on,” the former leader wrote on Twitter. “Given how serious the situation is, each one of us must to do everything we can to preserve unity.”

The move highlights the Republican party’s disarray less than 50 days before the first round of presidential elections.

It follows a weekend of intense discussions among senior party figures who are increasingly worried their candidate will not qualify for the second round.

A failure would be perceived as a humiliation after five years of deeply unpopular Socialist presidency, would threaten to break the party apart and increase support for Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate, and centrist Emmanuel Macron, who polls suggest are likely to reach the runoff.

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