LYON • Presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, riding high in the polls, has said he could unite a divided France at a major campaign rally that drew thousands of enthralled supporters.
The 39-year-old former investment banker has created a buzz on the campaign trail in recent weeks and polls currently show he would reach the election run-off on May 7, where he would probably face far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
Speaking in the central city of Lyon last Saturday, a day before Ms Le Pen addressed her own supporters, Mr Macron portrayed himself as the only candidate capable of rising above the traditional left-right split to occupy the centre ground.
"I am not going to say that the left or right is meaningless, that they are the same thing. But are these divisions not a hurdle?" he said.
"I want to reconcile the two Frances that have been growing apart for too long."
The speech kicked off the presidential campaign of the candidate, who resigned from President Francois Hollande's Socialist government last August.
MACRON'S CAMPAIGN PLEDGES
• Remain in EU, as France is "cornerstone of the bloc"
• Stronger European defence policy; wants all EU members to commit 2 per cent of GDP to defence spending
• Keep 35-hour working week
• Make it easier for businesses to lay off workers
• Cap severance packages in disputed dismissals
• Flexibility on retirement age
• Breathe new life into the French economy through innovation, free up businesses from administrative constraints
• Call for US scientists, academics and entrepreneurs at odds with Mr Donald Trump's administration to move to France
• End "three decades of chronic unemployment"
• Reduce high employment taxes
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, FRANCE24.COM
His hopes of winning the support of centrist votes with his own En Marche (On the Move) movement have risen since Socialists chose the radical left-winger Benoit Hamon as their party's candidate.
Mr Macron's supporters see him as a sorely needed fresh face in a campaign overshadowed by stark populist moves made in allying states - Britain's decision to pursue an exit from the European Union, and Mr Donald Trump's victory in the United States.
MESSAGE OF UNITY
I am not going to say that the left or right is meaningless, that they are the same thing. But are these divisions not a hurdle? I want to reconcile the two Frances that have been growing apart for too long.
MR MACRON, speaking in Lyon. He portrayed himself as the only candidate capable of rising above the traditional left-right split in French politics to occupy the centre ground.
"He is the only candidate who says that things will not be worse tomorrow than they are today and that the changes we are facing are not all doom and gloom," said supporter Guy Tremblay, 49.
But detractors say he has never held elected office and his campaign pledges are short on detail.
Mr Macron has also benefited in the last two weeks from the woes of conservative candidate Francois Fillon, the erstwhile leader of the race, who is accused of paying his wife and children hundreds of thousands of euros for "fake jobs".
As a result, France's major companies are increasingly looking towards Mr Macron, who is seen by them as business-friendly, albeit a political novice.
Organisers said a total of 16,000 people followed Mr Macron's speech.
The venue was packed and thousands stood outside to listen - which Mr Macron said was "a demonstration of the desire and enthusiasm" for his business-friendly programme.
Retired teacher Odile Ducloux, 63, said she was attending her first En Marche meeting.
"I used to vote Socialist, but my husband has been saying for years that we have to overcome the left-right division and thanks to Emmanuel Macron, I am convinced," she told AFP.
In contrast to Ms Le Pen, who wants the EU to be overhauled and France to quit the euro zone, Mr Macron said the country was the cornerstone of the bloc and must remain so.
He also argued in favour of a stronger European defence policy and said he wanted all EU members to commit 2 per cent of gross domestic product to defence spending.
But in a speech punctuated by rapturous applause, Mr Macron's main message was that he could breathe new life into the French economy through innovation and by freeing up businesses from administrative constraints.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG