As race tightens, Macron bids to sway undecided voters
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French election frontrunner Emmanuel Macron urged voters on Monday to turn the page on the last 20 years and bring a new generation to power, as he stepped up attacks against resurgent far-left and conservative rivals six days before voting day.
Macron, a 39-year-old pro-EU centrist who would become the youngest French leader since Napoleon if elected president, said recent leaders had betrayed the post-war generation which had rebuilt the country, leaving France unreformed and sclerotic.
"What has been proposed to the French in the last 20 years is not liberation or reconstruction, but a slow, unavowed acceptation of unemployment, state impotence and social breakdown," he told a cheering crowd of at least 18,000 people in the Bercy arena in Paris.
Investors are glued to the outcome of France's most unpredictable election in decades. Polls suggest growing numbers of voters are turning away from mainstream parties because of disenchantment with the establishment and frustration at years of economic malaise.
A former investment banker who has never won elected office, Macron has sought to portray himself as a clean break with the past -- despite having shaped the outgoing government's economic policy, first as President François Hollande's chief advisor and then as his economy minister.
With an eye on surveys showing his lead eroded by a surge in support for rival Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Macron hit back at the Communist-backed candidate on Monday, blasting his proximity with Latin American leftists including late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.
"Some would like France to become Cuba without the sun or Venezuela without the oil," he said.
An OpinionWay poll put Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen both on 22 percent for the first round of the election to be held on Sunday, suggesting Macron would comfortably beat Le Pen in a second-round runoff.
But conservative François Fillon was just behind on 21 percent, having recovered some ground since being hit by a scandal over hundreds of thousands of euros of public money he paid his wife for an alleged "fake job" as his parliamentary assistant.
Mélenchon gained one point in the same poll to 18 percent, confirming the election is now a four-way race and making it impossible to predict with certainty which two candidates will contest a deciding run-off on May 7.
Two other polls had Macron just ahead of Le Pen in the first round, but with both Mélenchon and Fillon closing the gap.
On the sidelines of the rally, which came hours before Le Pen's own event in the French capital and as Mélenchon campaigned on a barge sailing through Paris's canals, Macron's close aides acknowledged he was not guaranteed to reach the runoff.
"It's tightening. Fillon could find himself in the second round if he mobilises his base," said Christophe Castaner, one of several Socialist lawmakers who ditched their party's candidate, Benoît Hamon, to back frontrunner Macron.
"And then people on the left will go: 'damn it!', like in 2002," he added, in reference to the shock qualification of Le Pen's father Jean-Marie 15 years ago at the expense of former Socialist premier Lionel Jospin.
However, many in the crowd, which waved French and European flags, continued to believe he would win because of his pro-EU stance and his pledge to transcend the Left-Right divide.
"We would be proud to be represented in the world by a young and brilliant man, who's also measured and pragmatic," Florence Ombret, a 50-year old teacher from Nevers, told Reuters.
"It would be an earthquake if we were represented by anti-Europe candidates. We can't take this risk, we're nothing without Europe," the former Socialist voter added.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)