PARIS: Emmanuel Macron, the pro-business candidate making fast progress in the French presidential election campaign, unveils his policy programmes on Thursday as he seeks to capitalise on his conservative rival's woes.
Centrist Macron, a 39-year-old former economy minister, has surged from a relative outsider to one of the frontrunners in the race, benefiting from his status as a fresh face.
Critics though say Macron, who has never been elected to office, lacks substance.
An already extraordinary campaign took another turn Wednesday when rightwing candidate Francois Fillon announced he is to face criminal charges over allegations he gave his wife and children fake jobs from public money that paid around 900,000 euros ($950,000).
Polls show Macron has picked up support as a result of Fillon's woes and could reach the May 7 runoff of the two-stage vote.
In that second round, he is currently projected to face Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader with an anti-immigration, anti-EU platform.
Bruno Jeanbart from the OpinionWay polling group told AFP that either Macron or Le Pen were best placed to benefit from Fillon's difficulties, but added: "One can imagine that it would more likely be Macron."
Macron is set to unveil measures to reform France's rigid labour market, an issue that he grappled with when he was in Socialist President Francois Hollande's cabinet.
He told Le Parisien newspaper he would aim to slash unemployment to seven percent by 2022, equivalent to taking 900,000 people out of the jobless queue.
It is the sort of ambitious pledge that has detractors claiming Macron offers little to underpin his policies.
"It is absolutely realistic," Macron insisted. "The first thing we need to do is reform the labour market and on-the-job training."
The current Socialist government's attempts to make it easier to hire and fire workers sparked mass demonstrations last year that often descended into violence.
Last week, Macron promised to slice 60 billion euros off state spending over five years and said he would shrink the civil service by 125,000 jobs.
While proposing to extend France's unemployment benefits system to the self-employed, Macron has also pledged to withdraw payments for people who twice turn down jobs that they are qualified for.
- Ban on family jobs -
In a clear allusion to the Fillon scandal, Macron said Wednesday he would also bring in a ban on parliamentarians employing family members.
"We will ban lawmakers from giving friends or members of their family jobs, to put an end to nepotism," he told a press briefing.
After another troubled day in his campaign, Fillon heads to the Gard in the south of France for a campaign rally, still sounding a defiant note over allegations that could derail his bid.
The 62-year-old conservative former prime minister was favourite at the turn of the year to become France's next leader after clinching the nomination for the Republicans party in November.
But allegations that he used public funds to pay his British-born wife, Penelope with little work to show for it have eroded his support.
Fillon will meet investigating magistrates on March 15 but he made a defiant statement, saying the charges were "entirely calculated to stop me being a candidate for the presidential election".
"I won't give in, I won't surrender and I won't withdraw," Fillon said, claiming he was the target of a "political assassination".
A source close to the case told AFP that Penelope would also be summoned to be charged.
Fillon came under new pressure as a senior aide quit his team and a small centrist party, the UDI, said it was "suspending" its support and will meet next week to decide whether to withdraw it for good.
One poll showed Thursday that only 25 percent of French people think he should carry on with his presidential bid.
And his criticism of the probe drew a sharp rebuke from Socialist President Francois Hollande.
"Being a presidential candidate does not give someone the right to cast suspicion on the work of the police and judges," Hollande said.