Independent candidate leads French polls

PARIS (AP) — The leading French presidential candidate released his campaign platform on Thursday with 52 days left until the election.

Emmanuel Macron pledged to boost European unity while fighting populism and corruption. The centrist independent presidential candidate’s popularity grew largely based on what he is not — he’s neither left nor right; he has no party. He is also the only top contender not facing corruption investigations.

Amid growing French political scandals, Macron said he wants to shrink the size of the French Parliament, introduce term limits and ban officials from hiring their family members.

Two of Macron’s chief rivals for France’s two-round April-May presidential vote — conservative Francois Fillon and far-right leader Marine Le Pen — are both facing corruption investigations.

Centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, center, shakes hands with a farmer at a cheese stand as he visits the Agriculture Fair in Paris on Wednesday. The first French presidential ballot is April 23, and the two top candidates go into a runoff on May 7. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

Macron, a 39-year-old former economy minister who has never held elected office, is presenting himself as a fresh face without the political baggage of France’s long-tarnished political system. He pledged to “eradicate conflicts of interest.”

Conservative opponent Fillon may soon face charges that he arranged taxpayer-funded jobs for his family that they never performed. Denying wrongdoing, Fillon vowed Wednesday to pursue his candidacy even if he’s charged, but is now struggling to keep his party from falling apart.

Macron, who wants to cut the size of both houses of Parliament by a third and ban lawmakers from consulting, is also backing a blanket ban on employing family members.

Polls suggest Macron and Le Pen will be the top candidates in the April 23 first round ballot and advance to the May 7 presidential runoff.

But Le Pen is embroiled in her own set of corruption allegations. The European Parliament voted Thursday to lift her immunity from prosecution over her tweets of gruesome images of violence by Islamic State extremists. A different probe targeting Le Pen centers on her aide at the European Parliament, who is suspected of being paid with EU money without doing any work.

Many voters on the left and right increasingly see Macron as their best hope of defeating Le Pen, who’s hoping to follow U.S. President Donald Trump’s footsteps by riding nationalist, anti-immigration sentiment to a presidential win.

While Le Pen wants to pull France out of the EU and Eurozone, Macron said during his speech that the remaining 27 European Union members must vigorously defend their single market in talks with Britain on its exit.

Macron urged efforts to reinvigorate the Eurozone and closer European cooperation, insisting the EU cannot survive “without a real European strategy.”

Critics have struggled to attack Macron, in part because his platform remained elusive. Instead he’s been targeted for his personal life. He has denied, and joked about, rumors that he is gay, and faced scrutiny over his wife Brigitte, his former high school teacher who is 24 years his senior.

A former investment banker, Macron countered questions about campaign funding by asking his donors to go public with their names. As former economy minister who championed tech companies and Uber-like car services, he has said he wants to invest in training youth for today’s globalized economy and make it easier to change jobs.

Macron would cut 60 billion euros in public spending — and 120,000 public service jobs — but invest 50 billion euros in stimulus programs, notably on cleaner energy to fight global warming.