Momentum grows behind Macron in French race

Emmanuel Macron's is rising fast in the polls

The support building behind French centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron's bid for the presidency was underscored Thursday when a poll showed he would finish ahead of far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the first round of voting next month.

Macron, a 39-year-old former economy minister, has rapidly attracted backing with a pro-reform, pro-business campaign aimed at voters disillusioned with the traditional right and left of French politics.

"I think we are living through a time of deep and radical change," he told France Culture radio.

The Harris Interactive poll showed Macron taking 26 percent of the vote in the first round on April 23 -- a six-point gain in two weeks -- compared with 25 percent for the anti-immigration and anti-EU Le Pen, who had long been leading in the first round.

With no candidate likely to win an outright majority in the first round, a run-off between the two top candidates will be held on May 7.

Le Pen, seeking to ride the wave of anti-establishment sentiment in Europe and the United States, said the poll showed that her support was "extremely solid".

"We still need to win people over. Millions of people still haven't made their choice," she said.

Despite what looks increasingly certain to be a strong showing for the National Front candidate in the first round, polls currently show that Le Pen would be beaten in the runoff.

The Harris poll indicates that Macron would take 65 percent of that vote to Le Pen's 35 percent.

In a boost to a campaign that is not backed by either of the two main parties, Macron on Wednesday won the support of Bertrand Delanoe, the former Socialist mayor of Paris.

Delanoe, who oversaw the French capital from 2001 to 2014, called him "a reformist, a European and a realist".

He told France Inter radio he backed Macron because it was essential to "throw the most weight possible behind the candidate who can beat Madam Le Pen in the first round".

The growing concern among French diplomats about serving under a Le Pen presidency was put into sharp focus when France's ambassador to the United States said it would be a "total disaster" if Le Pen won.

Gerard Araud said that if Le Pen pulled the country out of the European Union, it "means the collapse of the EU, because the EU without France doesn't make any sense."

"And it means the collapse of the euro and a financial crisis, which will have consequences throughout the world," Araud told The Washington Post.

On Wednesday, France's ambassador to Japan said he would refuse to serve under her.

- Fresh blow for Fillon -

Macron, a former investment banker who quit the Socialist government in August to launch his presidential bid, said in remarks on International Women's Day on Wednesday that ideally he would name a woman as prime minister if he won the keys to the Elysee Palace.

An already highly unpredictable French election has become even harder to call given the legal woes afflicting the conservative challenger Francois Fillon, who has fought to remain in the race after becoming embroiled in allegations he used public funds to pay his wife and children for "fake jobs".

In another blow, the investigative paper Le Canard Enchaine this week published new claims that Fillon had failed to declare an interest-free loan of 50,000 euros ($53,000) from a billionaire friend.

Once the frontrunner in the race, Fillon has slipped to third in the polls, and the gap between him and Macron and Le Pen appears to be widening.

Delanoe's support for the Macron campaign is a blow for the Socialist candidate for the presidency, Benoit Hamon, whose hard-left policies have led some commentators to dismiss him as unelectable.

But Macron still has his detractors, with the veteran conservative former prime minster Alain Juppe describing him this week as "politically naive".