By Michel Rose and Emmanuel Jarry
PARIS (Reuters) - Presidential challenger Emmanuel Macron on Thursday said he would root out inequalities in France's pension system, sell government stakes in major firms and downsize parliament as he sought to silence critics who say his bid is thin on substance.
Macron, a former investment banker running as an independent centrist, is favorite to win the unpredictable race in a May runoff against far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
Macron owes some of his status as frontrunner to a financial scandal plaguing his other main rival, conservative Francois Fillon. On Wednesday Fillon promised to "fight to the end" as he revealed he would be placed under formal investigation over the alleged misuse of public funds.
"The society I want will be both free of constraints and blockages and protective of the weakest," Macron said as he unveiled his campaign manifesto.
He took aim at Fillon's declared admiration for the union-bashing British former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and at his plans to cut half a million public sector jobs, saying that "The future of France is not a set of British-style reforms from the eighties."
Nevertheless, several of Macron's own reforms will be controversial in a country of powerful interest groups, and which faces a feeble economic recovery and high unemployment which critics say he failed to tackle as economy minister.
While France's government has traditionally held large stakes in companies of national stature, Macron said he would sell up to 10 billion euros ($10.55 billion) worth of shares in groups in which the state does not hold a majority.
Candidates on the left are opposed to such moves.
The money raised will be put in a "Fund for Industry and Innovation" to finance future projects, which may include dividends from the companies he declined to name rather than outright sales of stakes, he said at the conference.
Macron, who last week outlined a broad economic plan mixing tax cuts, a reduction in government jobs and higher investments, said he wanted to smooth out big differences between the pensions of government employees and those in the private sector, while keeping the pension age at 62. Fillon would raise the pension age. Le Pen would cut it.
In contrast with past governments' refusal to engage in American-inspired "positive discrimination", Macron said he would give companies who hire people from 200 designated poor neighborhoods a 15,000 euros bonus over three years.
In measures designed to appeal more to left-wing voters, Macron also said he would raise disability and old-age allowances by 100 euros a month and penalize employers who used too many short-term contracts.
Macron's economic policies have broad approval from around 63 percent of voters, according to a poll by Odoxa published on Thursday. Almost half of voters polled believed they would improve the French economy.
He would also reduce the number of subjects to be taken in the baccalaureate, a pre-university exam created by Napoleon that has become a rite of passage for generations of French people but costs up to 1.5 billion euros to organize every year.
With regard to France's long-established core of elected officials, Macron said he would cut by a third the number of lawmakers in both the lower and upper parliamentary houses and by at least a quarter the number of province-level authorities classified as "departements".
(Reporting by Michel Rose; editing by Andrew Callus and Richard Lough)