Former French prime minister Alain Juppe said on Monday he had decided "once and for all" not to stand in France's presidential election, dashing the hopes of many in his conservative party whose existing, scandal-hit candidate faces defeat.
Juppe called his party's under-fire champion Francois Fillon obstinate in his determination to continue in the face of opinion polls that show him knocked out of the race in the first round of voting - but offered no alternative plan.
Fillon's poor showing would leave favorite and centrist Emmanuel Macron to fight out the second round on May 7 with far-right leader Marine Le Pen. Polls have shown that Juppe as a candidate would have made the second round comfortably.
"Our country is sick," Juppe told a news conference in Bordeaux, the western coastal city where he is mayor.
"For me it is too late but it is not too late for France," the 71 year-old said.
Earlier on Monday, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for Fillon and Juppe to meet with him in a bid to hammer out a solution to the crisis.
Sarkozy said on his Twitter feed that the aim of the meeting was 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".
Juppe did not mention Sarkozy's plan but had some harsh words for Fillon.
"What a waste!," Juppe said of the Fillon campaign, adding that Fillon had put himself in a "dead-end" with his response to the scandal.
"I confirm once and for all that I will not be candidate to the presidency of the Republic," Juppe said, adding that it was because it had become harder than ever to unite his conservative The Republicans party and because voters wanted fresh faces.
Juppe had been touted as a potential replacement for Fillon, but sources within The Republicans say supporters of Sarkozy had baulked at such a swap.
Fillon has so far stood firm and refused to give up his candidacy despite calls to do so from several senior members of the party, and even though opinion polls show him losing an election that is less than 50 days away.
Once the frontrunner, he is mired in a scandal over hundreds of thousands of euros of public money he paid his wife to be his parliamentary assistant.
He denies allegations she did little work for the money, but suffered a serious blow last week when he learned he could be placed under formal investigation for misuse of public funds.
A meeting of senior party officials was scheduled for Monday evening.