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France's Macron raises curtain on election alliance to beat Le Pen

By Brian Love and Michel Rose

PARIS (Reuters) - France's presidential race took a new turn on Thursday as independent Emmanuel Macron raised the curtain on a partnership with veteran centrist Francois Bayrou to help him beat the far-right's Marine Le Pen.

"Political times have changed. We cannot continue as before. The National Front is at the gates of power. It plays on fear," Macron said, referring to Le Pen's once-shunned party.

Opinion polls appeared to show the 39-year-old Macron, a political novice who has never held elected office but who has soared to become a favorite to enter the Elysee, was already benefiting from the new-born alliance announced on Wednesday.

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After meeting Bayrou, the fresh-faced former investment banker said he saw the new partnership as a turning point "not only in the campaign but also in French political life" - meaning it would be a break with the left-right rotation of power that has dominated French politics for decades.

Standing with Bayrou, a 65-year-old centrist who has run for president unsuccessfully three times, Macron told reporters they stood between France and a Le Pen regime of "fear".

All polls say Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigrant and anti-European Union National Front, will come first in the initial round of voting on April 23 but lose to either Macron or conservative candidate Francois Fillon in the May 7 runoff.

Two new opinion polls released as they met showed Macron still neck-and-neck with Fillon.

A third poll, collected by Ifop Fiducial over the past three days and thus including some reaction to Wednesday night's tie-up with Bayrou, showed Macron's first round score boosted by 3.5 points to 22.5 percent, ahead of Fillon on 20.5.

Polls have suggested that Bayrou has the support of about five percent of French voters, and his backing for Macron could prove crucial to his election success.

In an interview with Les Echos newspaper on Thursday, Macron, who says he wants to transcend the classic left-right divide, outlined his economic plans mixing tax cuts and a reduction in government jobs.

SOCIALISTS BOOST

The Socialists are given little chance of making the runoff after five years of unpopular rule by Socialist President Francois Hollande.

But Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon, who routinely trails in fourth place in opinion polls, received a boost when Greens candidate Yannick Jadot withdrew from the race after striking an agreement with Hamon's camp.

Opinion polls show Jadot would win only a tiny percentage of votes in the election - between 1 and 2 percent - but the move is a step forward in Hamon's hopes of unifying left-wing forces

Hamon has sought to persuade hard-left veteran Jean-Luc Melenchon, who has a strong core support of over 10 percent, to pull out as candidate and join forces with him to give the Left a chance of retaining power.

Melenchon has so far refused to do so, referring to the Socialist campaign train disparagingly as a "hearse". After Jadot's announcement on Thursday, Melenchon said he remained open to dialogue with Hamon and had not "closed any door".

Le Pen, in a speech on Thursday dedicated to foreign policy, suggested France should pull out of NATO's military wing and praised Russia as a "decisive force" in the world.

"The historic ties that have linked us with the United States since the War of Independence does not prevent us from leaving NATO's integrated command structure," she told supporters.

The campaigns of both Le Pen and of Fillon, a former prime minister, have been shaken by investigations into allegations that they misused public money. Both have denied wrongdoing.

Fillon, 62, was once the frontrunner but is now engulfed in a scandal over salaries paid to his wife and children out of public funds for work they are alleged to have not carried out. He says they did the work for which they were paid.

Le Pen is facing accusations she paid her chief of staff and bodyguard illicitly from European Parliament funds that she is now being pressed by the assembly to repay.

Florian Philippot, one of Le Pen's main aides, said on BFMTV that the National Front would not turn up if she was summoned to appear in court over the EU fake jobs affair.

(Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau and Leigh Thomas; Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

 
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