French presidential election: Emmanuel Macron vows to clean up politics

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris
Emmanuel Macron says he will end nepotism and conflict of interests in French politics. Photograph: Charles Platiau/Reuters

Emmanuel Macron, the independent centrist running for French president, has promised new laws to clean up the murky morals of French politics, in a dig at his scandal-hit, rightwing opponent François Fillon.

Investigators searched Fillon’s family home on Thursday as part of the inquiry into payments to his wife and children, AFP reported. About 60 MPs and senators had quit Fillon’s campaign by Thursday evening, with many urging him to step down as candidate. When Fillon was asked by Le Monde what he would do if all elected officials quit, he replied he would “carry on without them”.

Macron, the 39-year-old former economy minister who has never before stood for election, and founded his political movement less than a year ago, on Thursday unveiled a raft of manifesto proposals in an attempt to counter critics who said his “neither right nor left” stance was too vague on policy detail.

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Macron said he would “end nepotism and conflict of interests” in politics by bringing in a ban on MPs and senators employing family members or working as consultants while in office, and there would be more scrutiny of parliamentary expenses. He said that although there were many clean MPs who respected the law, voters were insisting on more “morals” in politics. “I believe in zero tolerance,” he said.

Fillon may soon face charges in the investigation into whether he gave his wife and children taxpayer-funded parliamentary assistant jobs that they never carried out.

He was accused by Dominique de Villepin, another former premier from his party, Les Républicains, of driving the right wing “into the abyss” with his insistence on running for the presidency. “Going down this dead-end street is taking the state, our faith in democracy and its fellow travellers hostage,” de Villepin wrote in Le Figaro newspaper.

Fillon this week vowed to remain a candidate and launched a scathing attack on the French justice system, but as he falls in the polls, Macron has risen to become the favourite to face the far-right Front National’s Marine Le Pen in the final round of the election in May.

The race, however, remains open and unpredictable.

Francois Fillon visits the farm of a young winegrower near Nimes. Photograph: Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty Images

On Thursday Macron complained that the constant talk of corruption in the presidential race was obscuring real debate. Marine Le Pen is also facing an investigation over misuse of European parliament funds.

Macron, a former investment banker, was asked by a journalist at his manifesto launch if there were any skeletons in his own cupboard. He said no. He said that as economy minister he had quickly settled a tax query over an independent expert’s alleged under-estimation of the value of his villa in Le Touquet. He said he had not used economy ministry expenses for his own political movement, En Marche! (On the Move), saying: “Those figures were all checked. They were never used for En Marche!”

Macron, who describes himself as coming from the left but open to rightwing policy, launched his manifesto in a delicate balancing act to hang on to supporters from both right and left. His pro-Europe platform offered a mix of traditionally rightwing pro-business measures – such as loosening France’s strict labour laws and cutting certain taxes – as well as measures to combat the country’s growing inequality in education and on housing estates.

He proposed a radical overhaul of the French pensions system – smoothing out the large differences between private and government-employee pension regimes while keeping the retirement age at 62. He also proposed a shake-up of how the unemployment benefit system is run, vowing to turn around France’s decades-old problem of mass-unemployment.

France has often been described as “unreformable” because of the street protests that meet any government attempts to pass new laws. But Macron brushed this aside, saying he wouldn’t get bogged down by tinkering with small changes. “We are not looking to adapt or reform, but to transform,” he said. “We will have democratic legitimacy on the basis of a clear programme.”

Marine Le Pen in Brussels. Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters

He criticised previous governments for trying to reform by stealth, adding: “The most difficult reforms that need time... It’s better to do them at the beginning.”

Criticising previous governments’ failure to deal with the ongoing inequality and discrimination on France’s mixed, high-rise estates, Macron said it wasn’t enough to simply launch renovation plans of buildings in banlieue neighbourhoods, which hadn’t helped the problem of ghettos. He said he wanted social mobility and would give a €15,000 bonus over three years to companies who hired people from 200 designated poor neighbourhoods.

Macron criticised the media for caricaturing him as a former investment banker, saying his policies meant he should be seen as the candidate of the working class.

Le Pen was the first candidate to set out a long list of policy proposals, including cutting immigration, taxing imports and foreigners’ job contracts, taking France out of the eurozone and holding a referendum on EU membership.

Fillon is expected to outline his policy platform next week.

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