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German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, February 22, 2017. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

(reuters_tickers)

BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel is ready to meet independent French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron before the French election and the two sides are discussing dates, a German government spokesman said on Friday.

Macron, the election frontrunner, did not get an audience with Merkel when he visited Berlin last month, but was welcomed in London this week by Prime Minister Theresa May.

The spokesman said there was no firm date yet but the expectation is that Merkel and Macron will meet in March.

In the run-up to the last French election in 2012, Merkel, a conservative, refused to meet with Socialist Francois Hollande, the eventual winner, amid pressure from incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, also a conservative.

That may have contributed to the rocky start in relations between Merkel and Hollande. Some Merkel aides later described the decision not to meet him as a mistake.

Fillon visited Merkel in Berlin in late January, a day before French satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine published a story revealing that he had paid his wife hundreds of thousands of euros in taxpayer money over a number of years to be his parliamentary assistant, despite no evidence that she had actually worked.

Fillon has said the work his wife Penelope did was genuine and denied doing anything illegal. But the scandal has dogged him ever since, and on Friday French prosecutors appointed a magistrate to investigate it, in a further blow to the candidate.

Most polls now show Macron, who got a boost this week from the endorsement of centrist Francois Bayrou, is likely to beat Fillon in the first round of the election on April 23 and face off against National Front leader Marine Le Pen in the runoff between the top two candidates two weeks later.

The polls show either Macron or Fillon would beat Le Pen in the second round, although their expected margin of victory has been shrinking.

(Reporting by Andreas Rinke and Noah Barkin; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

Reuters