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March 02, 2017

PARIS (AP) — With just 52 days left before French voters choose their president, the man leading polls is only now releasing his campaign platform. Until now, Emmanuel Macron has risen to popularity largely based on what he is not – he’s neither left nor right, he has no party, and he’s the only top contender not facing corruption investigations.

Macron lays out his platform Thursday on an upswing, as pressure mounts on conservative rival Francois Fillon, facing 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. Polls suggest Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen will be the top two vote-getters in the April 23 first round and advance to the May 7.

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

Macron offers his supporters something that other candidates for the election struggle to inspire: hope. Hope that France can embrace startups and create jobs again. Hope that France can reject populism and bridge its ethnic and religious divides. Hope that politics can be different under a 39-year-old who’s never run for office before.

Critics have struggled to skewer 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.

His campaign team has also claimed it’s been the target of hacking attempts stemming from Ukraine. A former investment banker, Macron countered questions about campaign funding by asking his donors to go public with their names.

While his platform has been a long time coming, the contours of Macron’s vision have already taken shape. A former economy minister who championed tech companies and Uber-like car services, he wants to invest in training youth for today’s globalized economy and make it easier to change jobs.

He 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. While Le Pen wants to dismantle European institutions, Macron wants closer European unity and a continent-wide budget.

Current polls suggest Macron and Le Pen have the best chances of finishing on top in the first round vote, followed by Fillon, and that Macron would easily win the runoff. But those same polls show the difference between Fillon and Macron falls within the margin of error. And they indicate most Macron voters aren’t sure of their decision — suggesting that he still has a lot of work to do to persuade most of the French electorate to entrust him with their nuclear-armed nation.

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