France's presidential election campaign went into overdrive this weekend, with two key candidates, the centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right Marine Le Pen, each laying out their radically different plans to overthrow the established order.

The politicians held competing events in Lyon as pressure mounted on Francois Fillon, who for months had been tipped to win the vote this northern spring, to pull out of the race because of the growing financial scandal over his wife, Penelope.

Jean-Luc Melenchon, the far-left firebrand who is neck and neck with the ruling Socialist party candidate Benoit Hamon, was due to add a touch of high-tech magic to the election race by holding a rally in person in Lyon while a hologram of the candidate appeared simultaneously at another meeting in Paris.

Macron, 39, a clean-cut former investment banker who has never held elected office, kicked off the weekend with a rally at a sports centre in the south of Lyon attended by a largely youthful and often ecstatic crowd which came to hear the man who promises to smash the "complacency and vacuity" of the French political system.


Macron, who was Economy Minister until he resigned last northern summer to launch his presidential bid, has been accused of being vague about his plans - and how to finance them - to resolve the mass unemployment, inequality, terror threats and fears of globalisation that plague France.

He gave some details at the Lyon rally - promising to boost the defence budget, hire 10,000 police officers, boost funding for schools, and loosen even further France's rigid labour laws - but said he would wait till the end of the month to reveal how he plans to fund his reforms.

He took a swipe at the new US Administration, saying that refugees from the "obscurantism" of Donald Trump's America could find refuge in France, and made a thinly veiled joke about his rival Fillon's alleged misuse of taxpayer money to pay his wife for a "non-existent" job as his parliamentary assistant.

Far-right leader and candidate for next spring presidential elections Marine le Pen. Photo / AP
Far-right leader and candidate for next spring presidential elections Marine le Pen. Photo / AP

Fillon, who was Prime Minister under former President Nicolas Sarkozy for five years, was this weekend facing mounting pressure from his own conservative camp to withdraw from the presidential race which has become the most unpredictable campaign France has known in decades. Polls have showed that a large majority of French do not believe his repeated denials of wrongdoing and a senior member of his own Les Republicains Party yesterday warned that the party might split if he did not withdraw. "There are presidential and legislative elections at stake and, beyond that, the survival of our political party," Senator Bruno Gilles, head of the party's influential Bouches-du-Rhone region, said.

Marine Le Pen, 48, who is tipped to come first in the first round of the election but face defeat against Macron in the second, began two days of "round table" talks with the party faithful in Lyon to set out her programme in detail.

She is hoping to profit from political turmoil to score a Donald Trump-style upset, promising to shield voters from globalisation and make France "free".

In 144 "commitments" published at the start of the event, Le Pen proposed leaving the eurozone, holding a referendum on EU membership, slapping taxes on imports and on the job contracts of foreigners, lowering the retirement age and increasing welfare benefits while lowering income tax.

"The aim of this programme is first of all to give France its freedom back and give the people a voice," wrote the candidate in the introduction to the manifesto.

She was due to hold a major rally today.