Francois Fillon, former French prime minister, member of The Republicans political party and 2017 presidential election candidate of the French centre-right, attends a meeting at the city hall in Tourcoing, northern France, February 17, 2017. REUTERS/Philippe Huguen/Pool(reuters_tickers)
PARIS (Reuters) - French conservative presidential election candidate Francois Fillon changed tack on public healthcare on Tuesday, saying he would ensure universal access to free eye-glasses, hearing aids and false teeth if elected.
The proposal contrasted starkly with his initial programme, which centred on introducing private health insurance rather than state-provided coverage for all but serious and long-term illness, a policy that proved unpopular among his own supporters as well as voters generally.
Fillon, who was widely expected to win the April-May election before he was hit by a scandal over payments of state funds to his wife and children, is seeking to regain lost ground, even as he remains a strong contender in the race.
Opinion polls taken this year have consistently showed far-right leader Marine Le Pen winning the first round of the two-round ballot but losing the runoff on May 7 to either Fillon or independent centrist Emmanuel Macron.
Most polls have given either man a second-round win over Le Pen by around 20 percentage points, though the gap has narrowed in recent days.
Macron is tipped in many opinion polls to make it to the runoff instead of Fillon, who last November became the candidate of the conservative party, The Republicans.
A fan of Britain's Margaret Thatcher, Fillon won that ticket on promises to slash public spending to 100 billion euros over the five-year presidential mandate and cull public service employment by 500,000, or close to 10 percent.
Fillon outlined his new policy in Tuesday's edition of the Le Parisien newspaper, saying he had never intended to privatise healthcare and had now reworked his programme on the issue.
He said that from 2017 public health insurance would provide 100 percent cover for children's eye-glasses and that by the end of his five-year mandate he wanted to ensure zero-cost provision of hearing aids, eyecare and dentures.
(Reporting by Brian Love; Editing by Geert De Clercq and John Stonestreet)