PARIS— France’s Emmanuel Macron won the support of a key centrist on Wednesday, hailing it as a turning point in his presidential campaign as an aide to his far-right rival Marine Le Pen was charged in a fake jobs scandal.
With two months to go before France’s increasingly unpredictable election, centrist veteran Francois Bayrou announced an alliance with Macron to counter the “major threat” posed by the far-right.
Bayrou had hinted for months at his own presidential run but ended the suspense by saying he would not mount a rival bid, to avoid splitting the votes of moderates to the benefit of Le Pen.
His announcement came as a boost to centrist ex-economy minister Macron, who has seen his ratings rise in recent weeks after conservative challenger Francois Fillon was hit by damaging corruption allegations, but has slipped behind him again in the latest poll.
Le Pen, meanwhile, suffered a blow on Wednesday when her personal assistant Catherine Griset was charged with breach of trust in a probe into allegations the candidate’s National Front (FN) party defrauded the European Parliament of about 340,000 euros.
The legislature accuses Le Pen, an MEP, of using parliamentary funds to pay Griset as well as her bodyguard Thierry Legier while they worked for her party in France rather than at the parliament. Le Pen has furiously denied the allegations.
The scandal comes as Fillon battles his own investigation into claims his British-born wife Penelope was paid around 700,000 euros over 15 years as a parliamentary assistant, despite little evidence that she did any work.
But while Fillon’s ratings took a dive after “Penelopegate”, opinion polls currently show Le Pen winning the first round of the election in April 23, although she is forecast to lose in the runoff on May 7.
Le Pen ‘is threat to France’
Bayrou, who ran three times for president and came third in 2007 with more than 18 per cent of the vote, told a press conference he was backing Macron to fight the “major and immediate threat for our country and Europe” posed by Le Pen.
Macron, a 39-year-old former investment banker, is campaigning as a pro-Europe progressive and says he is “neither of the left nor the right”.
He told AFP he had accepted Bayrou’s offer to join forces, hailing it as a “turning point” in the campaign and French political life.
Bayrou, who has a reputation for probity, condemned the corruption scandals that have embroiled both Fillon and Le Pen.
“What is most shocking is the tacit and nearly unanimous acceptance of these abuses,” he said.
Once a key force in French politics, Bayrou’s support has shrunk in recent years.
An Elabe poll Tuesday had shown him likely to garner around six per cent of votes in the first round of the election on April 23, compared with 18.5 per cent for Macron.
Supporters had already defected to the Macron camp before Bayrou’s announcement yesterday.
Bayrou described Macron as a “brilliant” individual and said he hoped that together they could finally bridge France’s entrenched left-right divide.
Le Pen surges
Le Pen, who has vowed to call a referendum on France’s membership of the European Union if elected, has blasted the allegations of misusing EU money, describing the investigation as a vendetta.
“The French people are well aware of the difference between genuine cases and political intrigues,” she told reporters at a campaign event earlier yesterday.
While pollsters believe the 48-year-old trained lawyer will fail to garner the 50 per cent needed for victory in the final run-off, she is closing the gap with both Fillon and Macron in hypothetical second-round match-ups.
A poll in early January by Ifop gave Le Pen 36 per cent to 64 per cent for Fillon in the second round, a 28-point gap.
She narrowed that to 12 points in an Elabe survey published Tuesday that showed her losing by 44 to 56 per cent.
Her numbers are similar in a theoretical duel with Macron, at 42 to 58 per cent. — AFP