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In 1st big campaign do, Macron unveils vision for 2nd term

PARIS (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday unveiled his proposals to boost the economy, fight inequality and improve France’s reactions to global crises if he wins a second term in next month’s elections.

Macron spoke at a press conference that’s his first major campaign event — taking time off from his focus on the war in Ukraine to provide details about his vision for the next five years.

He vowed to push ahead with a controversial pension reform that would “progressively” raise the retirement age from 62 to 65, and suggested that people who start working at a young age would still be able to retire before 65.

Boosting France’s growth must go through “investing more” and “working more,” he added, vowing to achieve “full employment.” The unemployment rate recently reached 7,4%, down from more than 10% when he came into power.

Macron also promised to keep investing in the French military, and fight inequalities at school and in health care access, amid other proposals.

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Asked about his campaign’s motto, he said he wants the French to be “stronger and happier all together.”

Even though he formally announced he is running for a second term at the beginning of the month, Macron has not held any rallies yet. He’s been criticized by other candidates for refusing to take part in any televised debate before the first voting round, scheduled on April 10.

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In recent days, he pushed for a cease-fire in Ukraine during phone calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and spoke on an almost daily basis with Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Last week, he gathered EU leaders at the Versailles palace, west of Paris, to discuss sanctions against Russia. France holds the rotating presidency of the European Union Council, which gives Macron a key role in coordinating the bloc of 27’s response. Next week, he is expected to be seen alongside U.S. President Joe Biden, at NATO’s summit in Brussels.

Macron recently released unusual pictures of himself working nights and weekends at the Elysee palace, looking tired and unshaven, in jeans and a hoodie.

If that’s part of a campaign strategy it seems to be paying off, reinforcing his position as frontrunner in the race while making it difficult for other contenders to challenge him.

Pollster Bernard Sananes, president of poll institute Elabe, said that “obviously the international situation is reinforcing his stature.”

“It gives the impression that Macron in 2017 has been elected on a promise to renew (politics) and that Macron in 2022 wants to be elected on the promise of (having) experience,” he said in an interview with French newspaper L’Opinion. Polls show most French, whether they intend to vote for him or not, consider he is up to the job, he stressed.

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Polls see Macron about 10 percentage points ahead of far-right contender Marine Le Pen, placing them both in a position to reach the runoff and replay the 2017 election. They show that in that case the French president is widely expected to win.

Another far-right candidate, Eric Zemmour, far-left figure Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and conservative contender Valérie Pécresse are amid other challengers.

Rivals have accused Macron of focusing on Ukraine to avoid domestic issues which may prove more tricky for him.

Le Pen said Macron is “using the war in Ukraine to scare French people, because he thinks scaring can benefit him.”

“When there’s a war, there’s a reflex to be legitimist,” Pécresse said. “People think: there’s a captain leading the operation … We must not be afraid to change the captain on April 11,” she added.

Advocates for Macron argue that the situation in Ukraine involves key domestic issues that are being fully debated in the campaign, like energy and defense policies.

Political history expert Jean Garrigues stressed the “unifying” impact around the head of state in a war-related situation.

“We can see that Macron’s adversaries have no experience equivalent to the presidential function, or even as key ministers, and are de facto in a situation of inferiority,” he noted.

Pollsters said Macron’s greatest challenge as the frontrunner may be a low turnout, with sympathizers not going to polling stations because they think he will win, while those angry at his policies would further mobilize.

Macron himself acknowledged the risk in a behind-the-scenes video posted on his campaign’s Youtube channel. “That’s what I’m going to tell the French, and also my supporters: If they think it’s done, it means we have lost,” he said.

Defense Minister Jaroslav Naj’ said at a news conference in Bratislava with visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin that the matter is still under discussion.

The Soviet-era anti-air defense systems use long-range missiles that are capable of flying hundreds of miles and knocking down cruise missiles as well as warplanes. They could be valuable in thwarting Russian air attacks on Ukraine.

Naj’ said such a transfer would be possible if his country received a “proper replacement” for its S-300s or if Slovakia received a “capability guaranteed for a certain period of time.”

He stressed that he could not responsibly transfer the S-300s to Ukraine in a manner that left a gap in his country’s defenses. He said Slovakia is open to making an arrangement that preserved its defenses against air threats.

Austin declined to say whether the Pentagon was in a position to provide Slovakia with a replacement for its S-300s. “These are things that we will continue to work with all of our allies on, and certainly this is not just a U.S. issue, it’s a NATO issue.”

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