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Macron takes aim at lawmakers, pensions in mould-breaking manifesto

By Michel Rose and Emmanuel Jarry

PARIS Presidential frontrunner Emmanuel Macron said he would root out inequalities in France’s pension system, sell down government stakes in major firms and downsize parliament, as he unveiled a manifesto to set him apart from traditionalists.

Standing as an independent centrist, Macron is tipped by opinion polls to defeat far-right leader Marine Le Pen in a run-off vote in May.

“The society I want will be both free of constraints and blockages and protective of the weakest,” Macron said in the programme, seen by Reuters and presented on Thursday following accusations that he has remained vague about his presidential plans.

Several proposed reforms seem certain to provoke heated debate in a country where long-established conventions are being undermined by a feeble economic recovery, high unemployment and widespread discontent over attempts to integrate Europe’s biggest Muslim community and deal with terrorism.

While France’s government has traditionally held large stakes in companies of national stature, Macron said he would sell 10 billion euros ($10.55 billion) worth of shares in groups in which the state does not hold a majority.

The money raised will be put in a “Fund for Industry and Innovation” to finance future projects.

Macron, who last week outlined a broad economic plan mixing tax cuts, a reduction in government jobs and higher investments, said he aimed to smooth out vast differences between the pensions of government employees and those in the private sector, while keeping the pension age at 62.

In contrast with previous French governments’ refusal to engage in American-inspired “positive discrimination”, Macron also said he would give companies who hire people from 200 designated poor neighbourhoods a 15,000 euros bonus over three years.

He will also reduce the number of subjects to be taken in the baccalaureate, a pre-university exam created by Napoleon that has become a rite of passage for generations of French people but costs up to 1.5 billion euros to organise every year.

In measures designed to appeal more to left-wing voters, Macron said he would raise disability and old-age allowances by 100 euros a month and penalise employers who used too many short-term contracts.

In a measure unlikely to go down well with either his fellow politicians or France’s long-established core of elected officials, he said he would cut by a third the number of lawmakers in both the lower and upper parliamentary houses and by at least a quarter the number of province-level authorities classified as “departements”.

($1 = 0.9480 euros)

(Reporting by Michel Rose; editing by John Stonestreet)