What happened today in France's presidential election

I'm a patriot, says French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron

With just over three weeks to go until the first round of the French presidential election, the conservative candidate Francois Fillon took a swing at frontrunner Emmanuel Macron, after the centrist met a prominent member of Fillon's own party.

Here are four things that happened in the presidential race on Saturday:

- Fillon to Macron: Conman -

Francois Fillon, who has seen his poll ratings nosedive since becoming embroiled in a highly publicised "fake jobs" scandal, launched a furious broadside at frontrunner Emmanuel Macron.

"Macron pretends to be a dissident ... he pretends to be a candidate who brings together all the French people... from former Communists to the ultra liberals," Fillon told a rally in Corsica.

The 39-year-old Macron is portraying himself as "neither from the right nor the left."

"A section" of the French people "might be taken in by this con act (of Macron) -- until the mask falls," said Fillon.

- Macron meets top conservative -

In a surprise encounter that set French political analysts' tongues wagging, Macron held talks with a high-profile member of Fillon's Les Republicains party, Christian Estrosi, who leads the southern region around Marseille.

Estrosi has called on Fillon to quit his campaign for president in the wake of the "fake jobs" scandal and voiced his "respect" and "friendship" for Macron.

Already this week, Macron received high-profile backing from the other end of the traditional political spectrum in the shape of former Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls.

The official Socialist candidate, Benoit Hamon, reacted to the news that Macron had met Estrosi by saying that the campaign had been "marred by dishonesty."

And far-right leader Marine Le Pen wasted no time in describing the Estrosi-Macron friendship as an "alliance," saying those in the mainstream "system" were trying to save their jobs.

- Hamon takes bid to Reunion -

Faced with a seemingly inexorable slide in the polls, Socialist candidate Hamon sought to re-energise his campaign with a rally in the Indian Ocean French territory of La Reunion where he addressed 2,000-3,000 cheering supporters.

Fans shouted "hip hip hip Hamon" as the 49-year-old made his pitch, notably concentrating on his pledge for a universal basic income.

Hamon is looking nervously over his shoulder in the polls at Jean-Luc Melenchon -- a far-left candidate who appears poised to overtake him and move into fourth place.

- Macron the patriot -

For his part, Macron gave an impassioned speech in front of between 5,000-6,000 supporters in the famously multi-cultural city of Marseille and did not waste the opportunity to take a swipe at Le Pen.

"I see Armenians, Italians, Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians, Malians, Senegalese, Ivorians. And several other nationalities I haven't mentioned," said Macron.

"But what am I seeing? The people of Marseille. What am I seeing? I see French people. French. People. Because they are proud. Proud to be French," he exclaimed.

"Take a close look, people from the (far-right) National Front. That's what it means to be proud to be French."

Macron described himself as a "patriot", a defender of a "strong France, open to Europe and the world."

burs-ric/jm