Established parties struggling ahead of French election

The race for the French presidency is stepping up a gear this weekend with current polling suggesting the two movements that have dominated French politics since the 1950s are unlikely to get a candidate into the decisive second round of voting.

Emmanuel Macron, who has become the new favourite to take the keys to the Elysee, launched his programme for government this week with the former Socialist, now running as a centrist, trying to scotch claims he is the establishment candidate running in borrowed clothes.

The merchant banker and former finance minister's decision to abandon the Socialists last autumn and forge a new movement rather than take part in the party's primaries was seen as a tacit admission the Socialists were unelectable.

Currently polls suggest Mr Macron, who has formed a movement called En Marche!, will contest the decisive second round of the election on May 7 with his likely opponent Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front in a race that has already confounded the predictions of pollsters and pundits.

Mr Macron also this week cemented an alliance with veteran centrist Francois Bayrou, the Mayor of Pau who won 19% of the vote when he came third in the 2007 election.

Mr Bayrou had considered running again but has now vowed to do all he can to ensure the election of Mr Macron.

Further surprises could yet lie ahead.

The Socialist Party candidate Benoit Hamon failed to seal an electoral deal with leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon and is trailing fourth as the governing party struggles to move on from the reign of Francois Hollande, the incumbent president who decided not to seek a second term after a reign blighted by terror attacks in Paris and Nice. 

Just a month ago, the centre-right's Francois Fillon looked set to reclaim the nation's top job for Les Republicains, the current incarnation of the Gaullist movement that has occupied the Elysee for 33 of the 59 years of France's Fifth Republic and had reigned for 17 years until Mr Hollande's victory over Mr Sarkozy in 2012. 

Mr Fillon has dived in the polls since attracting the attention of judges following newspaper claims his Welsh wife and two children had been given fake jobs with public money.

Mr Fillon, a 62-year-old father-of-five, admits employing his wife Penelope, from Abergavenny, but denies wrongdoing.

This week he called a snap press conference, fuelling speculation he would quit the race but instead announced he had been summoned by magistrates for a meeting on March 15 where he is expecting to be charged.

He said he would continue fighting for the presidency but has seen some campaign workers quit and calls are increasing in his camp for him to step down.

He had earlier vowed to do so if charged.

Ms Le Pen has consistently topped polls for the first round of voting although it is thought her opponent would be able to unify opposition against her in the decider.

The first round of voting takes place on April 23, with 11 candidates already declared.

It will whittle the field down to two for the decider on May 7 although in the unlikely event of a candidate getting 50% plus one of the vote in April there would be no need for a second round.

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