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Apr 29, 12:58 PM EDT

Macron hunts for French rural votes, Le Pen cheers new ally


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USSEAU, France (AP) -- French presidential front-runner Emmanuel Macron hunted Saturday for votes in rural France where his far-right opponent, Marine Le Pen, is making inroads among country folk who feel left behind.

Back in Paris, Le Pen announced that if she wins the presidency in the May 7 runoff she would name former rival Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, her new campaign ally, as her prime minister. The move aims to secure the nearly 1.7 million votes that the anti-European Union conservative got when he was eliminated from the presidential race in the first round of balloting.

Since many Dupont-Aignan voters had already been expected to switch to Le Pen for her runoff against the centrist Macron, the alliance is unlikely to prove a massive electoral boost for her.

Symbolically, however, it punctured a hole in hopes - expressed by mainstream politicians on both the left and the right - that French voters would unite against Le Pen's extremism in the runoff. That did happen in 2002, when her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, made it to the presidential runoff but lost overwhelmingly to Jacques Chirac.

At a news conference with 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."

"It's a historic day, because we are putting France's interests before personal or partisan ones," Dupont-Aignan said.

Macron said their far-right and right-wing alliance made the campaign battle lines even clearer.

"There is a reactionary, nationalist, anti-European right-wing that has structured itself and which, today, is an important political force," he said. "Facing it is a progressive bloc that I represent, and which defends France."

Macron is not saying yet who he would name to lead his government if he is elected. In a radio interview Saturday, he merely said he has "people in mind."

Venturing into rural France to combat Le Pen's arguments that he represents just the big-city elite, the former economy minister plugged his proposals to reverse the economic and social decline in farming areas. Macron promised to modernize phone and internet connections in rural areas 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, Macron listened to a grain farmer complain about low-price competition from other EU countries and a vegetable farmer lament about the difficulty of getting loans to upgrade farm equipment.

As the smell of goat cheeses wafted across the stalls, Macron rebuffed Le Pen's criticisms of the EU with a vigorous defense of European free trade, saying her plans to leave the bloc and its agricultural aid program would spell the end of French farming.

"Rural areas need an open, conquering France," Macron said. "Our agriculture needs Europe and openness."

Macron promised that no more schools would close in rural areas if he is elected and said his government would intervene directly if mobile operators fail within 18 months to install high-speed fiber optic and phone networks "everywhere."

Le Pen has made the plight of French farmers a theme of her campaign, citing farm closures, rural poverty and farmers' suicides.

The tidy village of Usseau, where Macron visited farmer Patrick Moron on Saturday, gave 120 of its votes, one third of the total, to Le Pen in round one, almost double the 66 votes it gave to Macron.

"We have wines, we have cheeses, we had the advantage for a long time," said Moron, a Macron supporter. "But we are no longer moving forward."

Neighboring farmer Dominique Marchand, who rotates harvests of colza, corn, wheat and sunflowers, lamented the growing scarcity of rural schools and medical facilities.

"Sometimes we have to go 30 kilometers (20 miles) to find a doctor, or drive 45 minutes to the nearest emergency room," he said. "It's getting worse and worse."

Speaking after attending an EU summit on Saturday, outgoing French President Francois Hollande warned voters that abstaining on May 7 could help Le Pen score high enough to encourage her to run again if she isn't elected this time. He said voters on both the left and the right should have no qualms about voting for the centrist Macron.

"It shouldn't even be a subject of discussion," Hollande said. "A ballot for Macron, you think of it as the ballot that keeps out the extreme right."

Abstaining from voting in the runoff, Hollande added, would just encourage Le Pen in the future. The far-right candidate came in third in the presidential race in 2012, and will end up no less than second in 2017.

"The lower she is, the less strong her ambitions can be for tomorrow," Hollande said.

Dupont-Aignan got 4.7 percent of the first-round vote on April 23 - compared to Macron's 24 percent and 21 percent for Le Pen - with a platform that described the EU as "inefficient, intrusive, anti-democratic and authoritarian." The right-winger called for the EU to be replaced by "a community of European states" with greater national powers for its members.

Le Pen's far-right National Front rejoiced over the alliance with Dupont-Aignan. Florian Philippot, a National Front vice president, told BFM television this was "a turning point in this campaign."

Still, the alliance caused splits within Dupont-Aignan's own party. It prompted the departure of vice president Dominique Jamet, who told BFM that the Le Pen-Dupont-Aignan alliance is "a couple that doesn't please me."

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John Leicester in Paris contributed.

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