By Michel Rose
PARIS (Reuters) - France's popular former economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, gets his campaign for the French presidency into gear with a rally in Paris on Saturday which should mark him out as a dark horse in the race for the Elysee.
The 38-year-old Macron, once a protege of President Francois Hollande, has faced strong criticism from the Socialists for deciding to stand as an independent in the 2017 election outside of the party structure.
He has steadfastly refused pleas - most recently by former prime minister Manuel Valls who is seeking the Socialist party ticket - to join in the Left's attempts to decide on a single candidate for next spring's election.
Macron, a former investment banker, will be hoping for a turnout of more than 5,000 at his rally on Saturday, eclipsing last weekend's modest gathering by the Socialists when party grandees struggled to re-energise the faithful at a gathering that drew only 2,500 supporters.
Polls show there is little chance of any left-wing candidate reaching the election run-off next May and, barring an upset, the stage seems set for a head-to-head between conservative Francois Fillon and far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
Fillon, a centre-right former prime minister who has pledged to cut deep into the public sector, would easily beat the anti-immigrant and anti-euro Le Pen, taking two thirds of the vote if the polls are correct.
Macron quit as economy minister in the Valls government after he set up his own political movement called "En Marche", which translates as "Forward" or "Onwards".
Promising to be "neither on the left nor on the right", he is widely seen as a wild card in an election that will be fought on high unemployment, national security and immigration.
Some say he could fragment the leftwing electorate and enhance Le Pen's chances of reaching the second ballot next May.
Opinion polls show him consistently ahead of Socialist candidates such as Valls who will compete for the party ticket in late January.
An Ifop-Fiducial poll placed Macron third in first-round voting intentions at 13.5 percent, ahead of Valls' 10 percent, but well behind both Fillon and Le Pen.
In a book published last month, Macron toned down his previous criticism of Socialist sacred cows such as the 35-hour work-week, saying he would let unions and employers reach deals to opt out of it, rather than raising the legal limit to 39 hours as Fillon advocates.
He also wants a major overhaul of France's welfare system inherited from the early post-war period, taking its management away from unions and employers to have it directly controlled by the state.
Its funding would be reformed by cutting taxes on wages and raising taxes on consumption, energy and wealthy pensioners instead.
(Reporting by Michel Rose; Editing by Richard Balmforth/Jeremy Gaunt)