By Claude Canellas and Brian Love
BORDEAUX/PARIS (Reuters) - Former 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 scandal-hit candidate faces defeat.
Juppe said Francois Fillon had wasted a chance of victory, calling the 63 year-old obstinate for staying on in the face of an inquiry into alleged misuse of public funds. Opinion polls show him crashing out in the first round.
Juppe offered no alternative plan less than 50 days from the April 23 vote.
"Francois Fillon... had a boulevard (to the presidency) in front of him," Juppe said at a news conference. "The instigation of judicial investigations against him and his defense based on a supposed plot and political assassination has brought him to a dead end."
Juppe's uncharacteristically harsh words for Fillon 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.
As confidence in Fillon fades within The Republicans party, senior officials are searching for a way to replace him and salvage their campaign.
Allies of former president Nicolas Sarkozy were preparing to ask Fillon to find a replacement himself, according to a Sarkozy ally present at a meeting on the issue on Monday.
Before the scandal over allegations he paid his wife taxpayers' money for little work as his parliamentary assistant erupted, Fillon had been favorite 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 indicate 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 on the news 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's camp agreed to ask prominent party member Christian Jacob to meet Fillon and ask him to find a replacement, the ally of Sarkozy told Reuters.
Fillon denies wrongdoing. However, his supporters have deserted him in droves since the scandal surfaced and he subsequently reneged on a pledge to stand down should he face being placed under formal investigation.
Calls for Juppe to take Fillon's place had been increasing inside The Republicans party in recent days.
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".
Juppe did not mention Sarkozy's plan.
Juppe, who along with Sarkozy lost to Fillon in a November primary vote, said he decided against standing because it had become harder than ever to unite his party and because voters wanted fresh faces.
Despite the calls for Juppe to stand, party sources say supporters of Sarkozy had baulked at such a swap.
Fillon revealed last week he was to be summoned by a judge later in March with a view to being put under formal investigation.
A separate meeting of senior party officials was scheduled for Monday evening.
Fillon was on Monday giving a campaign speech to France's small businesses federation.
(Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander; Writing by Andrew Callus; Editing by Richard Lough)