Beleaguered French presidential candidate Francois Fillon has urged supporters to fight on, in a speech to a mass rally in Paris.

He told tens of thousands of supporters, many waving tricolour flags, that he would be cleared over allegations he paid his wife and children for work they did not do.

The rally is seen as a crucial test of his popularity.

Calls are growing for him to quit and senior allies have left his campaign.

And just before the rally Christian Estrosi, a close ally of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, told BFM TV that senior Republicans would propose an alternative candidate in the coming hours.

However, he said it was important “not to humiliate” Mr Fillon and allow him a “dignified” way out.

Mr Fillon has seen his popularity slip in opinion polls.

Rally for Francois Fillon at Trocadero Square in Paris - 5 MarchImage copyrightAFP
Image captionIt was not clear whether the numbers at the rally will be enough to save Mr Fillon’s campaign
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In a rousing speech to supporters in driving rain, Mr Fillon urged his supporters not to give up the fight and thanked them for their support.

Referring to his opponents, he said: “They think I’m alone, they want me to be alone. Are we alone? Thank you for your presence.”

He said he would be exonerated when an impending criminal investigation got under way, and it would be the turn of his accusers to feel ashamed.

But he admitted that he had made a mistake in employing his wife.

Penelope Fillon accompanied him at the rally.

The BBC’s Hugh Schofield in Paris says that Mr Fillon’s aim in arranging this rally was to be able to prove that he and his manifesto enjoy a solid base of support among right-wing voters – and he may well have succeeded.

The idea of replacing him with another candidate now seems more complicated, our correspondent adds.

A counter-demonstration, billed as a pot-banging rally against corruption by officials, was also being held in the Place de la Republique, AFP reported.

Poll slump

Mr Fillon’s wife said on Saturday that she did carry out parliamentary work for him.

In an interview for French magazine Journal du Dimanche (in French), Penelope Fillon said everything was “legal and declared” and he would have paid someone else to do it if she had not.

The latest opinion polls suggest that Mr Fillon would be eliminated in the first round of presidential election voting on 23 April, with far-right leader Marine Le Pen and liberal Emmanuel Macron likely to progress to contest the election run-off on 7 May.

A survey published in Journal du Dimanche (in French) suggests that 71% of those polled want Mr Fillon to step down.

In another blow to Mr Fillon’s campaign, his spokesman Thierry Solere became the latest member of the campaign team to announce his departure on Friday.

Mr Fillon’s woes have raised speculation that Alain Juppe, another former prime minister whom he overwhelmingly defeated in November’s Republicans’ primary, could return to the race if he were to pull out.