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Presidential hopeful Macron hunts for France's rural vote

French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron is hunting for votes in rural areas of France where his far-right opponent, Marine Le Pen, has made recent inroads.

Ms Le Pen has sought to appeal to people who feel left behind, with difficult access to public services, mobile phone connections and other modern conveniences.

However, in a radio interview on Saturday, the centrist Macron said that, if elected, his government would intervene directly if mobile operators fail within 18 months to install high-speed fibre optic and phone networks "everywhere".

"I will give them 18 months to finish these deployments, be it fibre optic or 3G/4G," he said.

"If at the end of these 18 months, they have not fulfilled their responsibility, the state will substitute itself in their place to do this, within the framework of the investment plan I've decided."

Back in Paris, Ms Le Pen announced that if she wins the presidency next Sunday, she would name Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, her new campaign ally, as prime minister, in a bid to secure the nearly 1.7 million votes that the anti-European Union conservative got when he was eliminated from the race in the first round of balloting.

Since many Dupont-Aignan voters had already been expected to switch to Ms Le Pen for her second-round duel against the centrist Mr Macron, his decision to ally himself with her was unlikely to prove a massive electoral boost for her campaign.

Symbolically, however, the new alliance punctured another hole in hopes - expressed by mainstream politicians on both the left and right - that France will unite against Ms Le Pen's extremism in round two, as it did when her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, made the presidential run-off in 2002, losing overwhelmingly to Jacques Chirac.

At a news conference with Mr Dupont-Aignan, Marine Le Pen celebrated his backing as the creation of "a great patriotic and republican alliance" and said they will campaign "hand-in-hand" for what now becomes their shared programme.

Mr Macron is not saying who he would name to lead his government if elected. In a radio interview, he said he has "profiles, people in mind" for the post but again wouldn't reveal names.

Venturing into rural France to combat Ms Le Pen's arguments that he represents the big-city elite, the former economy minister plugged his proposals to reverse the economic and social decline in farming areas.

Mr Macron promised to modernize phone and internet connections and vigorously defended the EU as an essential market for French farmers.

On an impromptu tour of the farmers' market in the central town of Poitiers, Mr Macron listened to a grain farmer complain of low-price competition from other EU countries and a vegetable farmer's laments about the difficulty of getting loans to upgrade farming technology.

He rebuffed Ms Le Pen's criticisms of the EU with a vigorous defence of European free trade, saying her plans to leave the EU and its agricultural aid programme would spell the end of French farming.

"Rural areas need an open, conquering France," Mr Macron said in his radio interview. "Our agriculture needs Europe and openness."

He promised that no more schools would close in rural areas if he is elected.

Ms Le Pen's National Front rejoiced over the alliance with Mr Dupont-Aignan.

Florian Philippot, a National Front vice president speaking on BFM television, described it as "excellent news" and "a turning point in this campaign".

Still, the alliance caused splits within Mr Dupont-Aignan's own party, Stand up France, with the departure of a vice president, Dominique Jamet.

Mr Jamet told BFM that that Stand up France was losing its "purity" and that the Le Pen-Dupont-Aignan alliance is "a couple that doesn't please me".

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