Francois Fillon, former French prime minister, member of the Republicains political party and 2017 presidential candidate of the French centre-right, attends a news conference to present his "project for France" in Paris, France, March 13, 2017. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer(reuters_tickers)
By Leigh Thomas
PARIS (Reuters) - Francois Fillon outlined his plans to streamline the state's role in France's economy on Monday as he sought to revive his faltering presidential campaign, but again found himself on the defensive, this time over expensive suits he accepted as gifts.
With six weeks to go until the first round of voting, the former prime minister who was once favourite to win the presidency is battling to rally supporters and keep his centre-right alliance on his side after allegations of financial impropriety.
In a blitz of media interviews and a news conference, Fillon, an open admirer of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, spelled out his plans to reinvigorate France's regulation-laden economy.
"I want to make 100 billion euros ($107 billion) of savings over five years and reduce by 500,000 the number of public sector jobs," he said at the news conference.
"My programme is based on an ambition to make France a great political and economic power."
He reiterated policies to end the 35-hour working week, a move that would be fiercely opposed by France's muscular unions, and gradually raise the retirement age to 65 from 62 at present.
Fillon's new offensive to put his campaign back on track comes two days before he is due to meet judges investigating the hundreds of thousands of euros of taxpayers' money that he paid to his wife Penelope and his children for work they did for him.
The scandal, dubbed "Penelopegate" by France's media, has tainted his reputation as a clean politician and knocked him from first to third place in opinion polls.
That would see him knocked out in round one of the ballot on April 23 in favour of far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who is campaigning on a platform to pull France out of the euro, and centrist Emmanuel Macron, the new frontrunner.
Fillon has said that magistrates are likely to put him officially under investigation on counts of suspected misuse of public funds but, contrary to what he initially announced, has declared he will not drop out of the race if that happens.
Once again, however, Fillon's attempts to revive a flagging campaign were troubled by potentially damaging stories of high living that sit awkwardly with his claim at his party's primary last November to be beyond reproach ethically.
A newspaper at the weekend said he had received close to 50,000 euros worth of suits and clothing since 2012.
"I cannot see this as anything other than a manhunt," he told Europe 1 radio.
Over the weekend, Fillon's party apologised for tweeting a caricature of Macron that Fillon himself admitted was anti-Semitic.
Fillon made no mention of the fake jobs scandal besetting his campaign.
He has already accused the media and the justice system of bias in the affair. He insists he did nothing illegal and that he is the victim of politically motivated reports designed to destroy his bid for power after five years of Socialist Francois Hollande.
Fillon has not denied the report published by the Journal du Dimanche newspaper on Sunday that he was gifted expensive suits but said it was proof of a slur campaign.
A new opinion poll released on Monday again showed Fillon crashing out of race in the first round, taking 20 percent of the vote to Macron's 25 percent and Le Pen's 27 percent.
The Opinionway poll foresaw Macron beating Le Pen in the May 7 runoff by 62 percent to her 38.
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(Writing by Brian Love and Richard Balmforth; editing by Richard Lough)