PARIS France’s presidential race took a new turn on Thursday as opinion polls began to show centrist Emmanuel Macron benefiting from an alliance with a veteran politician that could help him beat the far-right’s Marine Le Pen and win power at the age of 39.
Macron, a fresh-faced ex-investment banker who has never held elected office, met his new ally, centrist Francois Bayrou, on Thursday a day after they struck an electoral pact.
Bayrou, 65, has run for president three times, but said on Wednesday night he would back Macron rather than enter the race again himself.
After the meeting, Macron, standing alongside Bayrou, told reporters he stood between France and a Le Pen regime of “fear”.
“Political times have changed. We cannot continue as before. The National Front is at the gates of power,” he said.
Two new opinion polls released as they met showed Macron neck-and-neck with mainstream right-winger Francois Fillon.
A third poll, collected by Ifop Fiducial over the past three days and so including some reaction to Wednesday night’s tie-up with Bayrou, showed Macron’s first round score boosted by 3.5 points to 22.5 percent, ahead of Fillon on 20.5.
All the polls continued to show Le Pen winning round one of the election on April 23 but losing a May 7 runoff against either man.
One showed Le Pen losing to Fillon by a relatively tight margin of just 45 percent to 55, but others showed the margin wider for both men.
The campaigns of both Le Pen, leader of the anti-euro, anti-immigrant National Front, and of Fillon, a former prime minister, have been shaken by investigations into allegations that they misused public money. Both have denied wrongdoing.
Fillon, 62, was once the election frontrunner but is now engulfed in a scandal over salaries paid to his wife and children out of public funds for work they are alleged to have not carried out. He says they did the work for which they were paid.
Le Pen is facing accusations she paid her chief of staff and bodyguard illicitly from European Parliament funds that she is now being pressed by the assembly to repay.
Macron could benefit from his cleaner image as well as from Bayrou’s endorsement, which has cheered investors nervous about France’s economic prospects under Le Pen, who wants to return to a national currency and ask voters if, like the British, they want to quit the European Union.
Polls have suggested that Bayrou has the support of about five percent of French voters, and his backing for Macron could prove crucial in pushing the centrist into the runoff.
“These developments would appear to reinforce our view that Macron looks most likely to win the presidential election,” said JP Morgan economist Raphael Brun-Aguerre.
Macron served under Socialist President Francois Hollande as economy minister, deregulating Sunday trading and coach bus transport. He says he wants to transcend the left-right divide in French politics.
(Additional reporting by Leigh Thomas; Editing by Andrew Callus and Richard Balmforth)