PARIS Presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron on Thursday pledged to "transform" France with major overhauls of the post-war pension and welfare systems as he sought to silence critics who say his bid is thin on substance.
With a financial scandal plaguing conservative candidate Francois Fillon, Macron, a former investment banker running as an independent centrist, is favourite to win the unpredictable race in a May runoff against far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
But the reforms he is promising could bring him into conflict with some of France's powerful interest groups, including the traditionally combative trade unions.
"The society I want will be both free of constraints and blockages and protective of the weakest," Macron said as he unveiled his manifesto, which also included pledges to sell down government stakes in major firms and downsize parliament.
He took aim at Fillon's declared admiration for Britain's union-bashing former premier Margaret Thatcher, and at his plans to cut half a million public sector jobs, saying "the future of France is not a set of British-style reforms from the 80s".
Le Pen criticised Macron's plan, saying it represented a continuation of the policies of outgoing President Francois Hollande and posed "a major threat to the future of France".
The powerful Communist-backed CGT union meanwhile appeared ready to mobilise workers if the reforms led to lower pensions.
"Of course the CGT will react," Jean-Marc Canon, head of the CGT's public sector branch, told RTL radio. "We can't endlessly pit employees from one sector against the others."
Macron last week outlined a broad economic plan mixing tax cuts, a reduction in government jobs and higher investments, but is accused by critics of having failed to tackle feeble growth and high unemployment while he was Hollande's economy minister.
On Thursday, he pledged to set up a 10 billion euro ($10.52 billion) fund to promote industrial and research projects, to be financed by selling down shares in companies where the state owns a minority stake and by dividends from state-owned shares.
He did not name any of the companies whose shares might be sold. Candidates on the left oppose privatisations.
Macron said he wanted to smooth out big differences between the pensions of government and private sector employees, while keeping the pension age at 62. Fillon would raise the pension age to 65. Le Pen would cut it to 60.
That would mean reforming the generous pensions of big state-owned companies such as utility EDF and railway SNCF, whose unions have fiercely defended their privileges.
But Macron was undeterred by the possibility of labour conflict. "Strikes and blockage are not inevitable," he said. "The big strikes of the last 20 years were the result of reforms carried out by governments with no clear mandate to pursue them."
Plans to reform labour regulations, unemployment insurance and vocational training systems, broadly pleased employers but could be another point of contention with unions which currently co-manage them.
"It goes in the right direction, broadly speaking," the head of the Medef group of big employers, Pierre Gattaz, told reporters. "But the devil's in the details."
Appealing more to left-wing voters, Macron said he would raise disability and old-age allowances by 100 euros a month and penalise employers who used too many short-term contracts.
Companies which hired people from 200 designated poor neighbourhoods would receive a 15,000 euro bonus over three years, he said.
He would also reduce the number of subjects taken in the baccalaureate, a pre-university exam created by Napoleon that has become a rite of passage for generations of French people but costs up to 1.5 billion euros to organise every year.
To speed up decision-making, Macron said he would cut the number of lawmakers in parliament by a third and reduce by at least a quarter the number of provincial "departments".
($1 = 0.9509 euros)
(Additional reporting by Myriam Rivet; Editing by Catherine Evans)