France's 'ignored middle' is my priority, Macron tells AFP

Jérémy MAROT, Marc PRÉEL
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French presidential election candidate for the En Marche movement Emmanuel Macron poses for a photo session on March 7, 2017 at his campaign headquarters in Paris

Centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron told AFP in an interview Tuesday that he will be the defender of France's middle classes, which he says have been ignored by left and right.

Macron, a 39-year-old former economy minister, has made swift progress in the campaign after founding his own political movement only in April last year.

He is pitching his message to the centre ground, seeking to break the traditional left-right stranglehold on French politics.

Although veteran rightwinger Alain Juppe described him as "politically naive" this week, Macron's approach appears to have struck a chord.

Polls currently show the former investment banker would reach the second round of the election, where his opponent is forecast to be far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

The first round of voting takes place on April 23. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two go into a runoff on May 7.

Macron claimed that both the outgoing Socialist government under President Francois Hollande -- in which he served -- and their rightwing opponents have let down the middle classes, failing to feel their pain of job cuts and their increasing tax burden.

- 'Forgotten' -

"The contract with the middle classes, which are both the political and economic bedrock of our democracy, has been broken," Macron said.

"The right talks about the France that is succeeding, the left talks about the workers who are struggling the most," he added.

"They have forgotten the middle classes which are working for France, the France that is fighting to succeed."

Macron told AFP that snubbing middle earners had been the spark which led to Britain's Brexit vote and Donald Trump's victory in the United States.

"Democracies that have succeeded economically by depending only on the classes that succeed... while forgetting the middle classes, are shattered by the rise of extremes," he said, adding: "It's what happened with Brexit, it's what happened with Trump."

Macron suffered a blow to his campaign on Tuesday when he confirmed a report by the daily Le Monde that a member of his team had resigned over an apparent conflict of interest.

Jean-Jacques Mourad, a cardiologist, is said to have made nearly 60 business visits and appearances at conferences between 2013 and June 2016, paid for by the Servier pharmaceutical company, during which he ran up tens of thousands of euros of expenses.

Mourad was a member of a working group on health issues in the Macron campaign.

Speaking after a campaign event in the Paris suburbs, Macron also said he had asked his party's ethics committee to ask all contributors to working groups to flag any possible conflicts of interest.

Le Canard Enchaine newspaper, which revealed the expenses scandal that almost derailed the campaign of conservative candidate Francois Fillon, also points the finger at Macron in its Wednesday edition.

The investigative paper alleges that a watchdog is probing accusations that favouritism was involved in the choice of public relations giant Havas to organise an event for Macron and French entrepreneurs at the CES electronics show in Las Vegas in 2016, when he was economy minister.

The paper said Havas was awarded the contract without bids being sought from other companies.

Denying the claims, Macron said Tuesday, "My ministry, when I was its minister, always respected rules on the bidding process and on public contracts."