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France’s Macron unveils programme as Fillon warned of ‘abyss’

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French presidential election candidate for the En Marche ! movement Emmanuel Macron gives a speech as he unveils his full programme eight weeks from election day, on March 2, 2017 in Paris.

French centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron promised new laws to clean up politics on Thursday as scandals deepened for his rivals Francois Fillon and Marine Le Pen.

Conservative ex-premier Fillon revealed Wednesday he is set to be charged over allegations he paid his wife and children hundreds of thousands of euros for a fake parliamentary job.

He was accused by Dominique de Villepin, another former prime minister from his Republicans party, of driving the right wing “into the abyss” as he continued campaigning in southern France.

Far-right leader Le Pen’s legal woes also deepened as the European Parliament lifted her immunity to allow her to be prosecuted for retweeting images of Islamic State atrocities.

The anti-EU, anti-immigration candidate also faces a separate parliamentary expenses investigation and a campaign financing probe in France — all of which she, like Fillon, denounces as a plot to thwart her bid for power.

Macron, who founded his independent movement “En Marche” (On the Move) last April, promised a “strategy to make public life more ethical” as he unveiled his full programme for the first time.

The 39-year-old said he would bring in a ban on parliamentarians employing family members, bar candidates with criminal records from standing for public office, and increase the scrutiny of MPs’ expenses.

Taking aim at his scandal-plagued rivals, he also accused them of “deliberately attacking our rule of law”.

A new poll published Thursday showed Macron scoring 24 percent, ahead of Fillon’s 19 percent but behind Le Pen at 27 percent in the first round of the election on April 23.

In a second-round run-off on May 7, Macron is shown beating Le Pen if the vote were held today, but analysts warn against firm forecasts after a rollercoaster campaign so far.

– Grassroots support? –
Fillon, a 62-year-old conservative, visited winegrowers in Provence while facing his biggest challenge yet to keep his Republicans party behind him.

He has called the charges over the fake jobs scandal “entirely calculated to stop me being a candidate for the presidential election” and has ruled out stepping aside.

But defections from his team and calls from senior Republicans for him to make way for former premier Alain Juppe, 71, underlined the divisions and fears in his camp.

“The French people back me,” he told journalists defiantly. “The base is holding.”

He was the favourite at the turn of the year to become France’s next leader after clinching the nomination for the Republicans in November.

But the allegations that he used public funds to pay his British-born wife Penelope as an assistant for 15 years, with little work to show for it, have eroded support.

– European dream? –
The main beneficiary of Fillon’s woes has been Macron, who sought Thursday to take on critics who say his pro-European, pro-business platform lacks detail and substance.

Mixing traditionally rightwing measures such as easing strict labour controls and cutting taxes, he also stressed the need for new investment in public schools and measures to help deprived, high-immigrant areas.

“We are not looking to adapt or reform, but to transform,” Macron told hundreds of journalists at a launch event to set out his agenda.

Drawing a stark contrast to Le Pen, who has called for France to withdraw from the European Union, Macron said that “it’s obviously Europe that is at the heart of our project”.

Macron believes France is too small to compete on its own in a globalised world and wants deeper integration between countries that use the euro, which would include the creation of a eurozone budget.

“Our responsibility in the years to come is to be able to rebuild the European dream,” he said, adding that he would seek to persuade the zone’s richest member Germany to invest in other countries.

– Solid Le Pen support –
While support for Fillon has slumped due to his legal problems, Le Pen’s has remained solid and even risen slightly despite the investigations into her and her party, most polls suggest.

“The thing about the judicial affairs for Marine Le Pen and the National Front is that they are not about personal enrichment, while Francois Fillon’s family is directly implicated,” far-right expert Cecile Alduy from Stanford University told a conference this week.

The investigation in focus on Thursday concerns graphic pictures including that of a beheaded journalist that Le Pen posted on social media in 2015.

They were addressed to a French television journalist who had likened her National Front party to the Islamic State group, leading police to open a probe into “the dissemination of violent images”.

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