| CHATELLERAULT, France
CHATELLERAULT, France French presidential hopeful Emmanuel Macron launched a scathing attack on Friday against politicians who have failed to endorse him against far-right rival Marine Le Pen, saying they were making France "morally weak" and pandering to extremists.
Having been caught on the hop by Le Pen since the start of the second round campaign this week, and with just over a week to go until the May 7 runoff vote, the independent centrist who is tearing up France's political rule book took his campaign to the countryside.
His aim was to appeal to disgruntled farmers who have shied away from politics and turned to the far-right following years of crisis.
But with Le Pen winning the endorsement of defeated sovereignist Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, and with failed far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon refusing to back him, Macron began his rally in Chatelleraut, central France, on the defensive.
"I hear some saying they are preparing for the legislative elections ... they have not understood. The National Front is not a party like any other. Those people are not only making an error, but a deep and serious mistake," he told a rally of about 3,000 flag-waving supporters.
Macron was referring not only to Melenchon, who garnered one in five first-round votes, but also to France's two main traditional political groupings, conservatives on the centre-right, and the Socialist party on the left.
Both were blown away by a first round vote that catapulted Le Pen, backed by her anti-immigrant National Front party, and the 39 year-old independent with his En Marche! political movement, into the run-off for the presidency.
"That I hear some political leaders comparing us to the National Front, shows that the country has weakened morally. We cannot accept that," he said.
The pro-Europe, pro-business Macron, a minister in the outgoing Socialist government until last summer but who has never held elected office, is still expected to beat the anti-globalisation, anti-EU Le Pen on May 7.
But having see his poll lead narrow in recent days to show him winning with 60 percent of the vote or less, he attacked Melenchon's stance.
Melenchon's 'France Unbowed' movement has a similar anti-globalisation, pro-worker protection message to Le Pen's, but is sharply opposed to her position that immigration and radical Islam are at the root of France's problems.
"We share one thing, and that is to be attached to debating our disagreements within a republican framework, and that is our main difference with the National Front and he has forgotten that," he said.
"I will not leave France to this Right."
Though only a fraction of the population still works in the farm sector, voters remain attached to the country's agrarian roots, making the agricultural heartlands a key battleground.
Key to victory for 39 year-old ex-investment banker Macron will be getting support from across the political spectrum after an election race that has alienated millions of voters.
In Chatelleraut, a town of about 35,000 with an industrial base but surrounded by fields, Macron came out top in the April 23 first round of voting, but only just. Nationally, the four top candidates were also close, fewer than five percentage points from each other.
After years of crisis in agriculture and perceived indifference from other candidates, Le Pen's anti-EU, anti-globalisation rhetoric strikes a chord with many farmers, once faithful voters for mainstream conservatives.
A Cevipof poll for Le Monde newspaper in February showed that 35 percent of voting farmers would back Le Pen. By contrast, Macron was on only 20 percent. The same poll also showed 51 percent of 300 farmers surveyed saying they would not vote.
With his detractors accusing him of being the candidate of wealthy France, Macron shot back.
"I hear that France is divided into the France of the cities that supports me, and the France of the heartlands that supports Mrs Le Pen. Thank you for being here to prove the opposite," he said to cheers.
(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Andrew Callus)