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Rise of the Unidentified High-Flying Candidate

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Boost: Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte. Photo: AFP/Getty

Boost: Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte. Photo: AFP/Getty

AFP/Getty Images

Boost: Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte. Photo: AFP/Getty

He has been described as the Unidentified Flying Candidate in the most unpredictable French presidential election for a long time. But he is not, any more, a laughing stock. Eight weeks before the first round of the election, Emmanuel Macron is now a very decisive contender.

When he announced his candidacy last November, he was dismissed - by the right and the left - as a lunatic. Predictions were that his candidacy would soon collapse; or that it was an empty box filled with vague ideas and ideals.

Furthermore, he didn't have the structural support of a traditional party, its geographic spread into local communities and its volunteers.

He also did not have the money, without which, said his critics, you can't win an election. He had nothing but youth, good looks and his profile as an outsider. It wouldn't last, they all said.

Three months later, Emmanuel Macron, 39, stands at 22.5pc in the polls for the first round, second behind the untouchable - for now - Marine Le Pen. His movement, En Marche! just reached the 200,000-supporter mark.

His candidacy has been further boosted by the alliance with the centrist François Bayrou, leader of the Mouvement Democrate (MoDem) party, who has decided, wisely, not to stand for the fourth time in a presidential election.

One of the reasons behind this decision, bar the fact that he had no chance of winning, was his recognition that Emmanuel Macron is now the best candidate to beat the Front National's Marine Le Pen in the second round.

Macron's decisive mantra, that the traditional divide between left and right is out of fashion, not relevant any more, reaches plenty of voters. And, if the choice on May 7 is between Le Pen and Macron, the latter will be an easy choice for both liberal conservatives and social democrats. It's not so clear, were Francois Fillon to be the opponent against Le Pen, that he would deliver both groups.

The leader of Les Republicains is seen as too conservative for a lot of socialists and his recent scandals make him even less attractive. Low turnout would then be the danger and the chance for Le Pen in the second round.

Macron has been incredibly lucky since the launch of his bid. The unprecedented decision by president Francois Hollande to not stand for a second term, due to his unpopularity, the rejection in the socialist primary of his former prime minister Manuel Valls, and the choice of Benoit Hamon, much more on the left of the Socialist party, have left a vacuum closer to the centre. And the surprise primary win, on the conservative side of Francois Fillon against the more moderate Alain Juppe, opened up space on the centre-right for Macron. This was widened still by scandals about Fillon's wife, Penelope, who may or may not have worked as his parliamentary assistant, but who was duly paid.

But Macron has used his luck smartly. His critics keep repeating that centre mainstream policies never win elections. Macron disagrees, even if he still sees himself as on the left, though not a socialist.

What is fascinating is the way he is conducting his campaign, using tools already tried successfully by such different figures as Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

He is heavily reliant on social media. His communication team is led by Laurence Haim, a former journalist who has covered American politics for the past 20 years, including the two Obama campaigns.

When he speaks and meets people, he is engaging and straight-talking and uses simple language which some would qualify as "populist". But his agenda, his ideas are resolutely mainstream. In a way, he reminds some of the 1997 version of Tony Blair - enthusiastic, seemingly fearless and without too much complexity. There might be less fervour for Macron, but France is not emerging from 18 years of conservatism.

He is not afraid to address criticism and has reacted to the rumours that he is gay and leading a double-life by cracking jokes about them.

He is married to Brigitte, older than him by 24 years and who once taught him literature at school. You wonder if a candidate with a much younger wife would suffer such rumours.

Macron created some noise two weeks ago when he said in Algiers that "France's colonialism has been a crime against humanity". The far-right and a wide range of mainstream conservatives were outraged, but others said that it was a debate which needed to be addressed. He apologised for "hurting some sensibilities" but didn't retract his words.

As for money, he has been accused of being the candidate of the bankers as he used to work for Rothschild. Last Monday in London, he addressed 3,500 potential French voters and said: "I am always accused when I come to London that I am here to grab money from the City, from those nasty and horrible people."

The assembly laughed - lots of them work in the City. But then he said: "At least at Rothschild I had a real job, I worked, I really did earn my salary." A nice jab at Fillon, accused of hiring his wife for duties she never carried out.

The fact is, because En Marche! is not a political party, it doesn't receive public funding. So the movement is so far financed by individual donations, limited by law to a maximum of €7,500 (£6,350) per person.

Though he had to backtrack on some key issues, it firmly established him as a centrist and someone who embraces change even against formidable opposition. He is still the new kid in town, but he is not a joke any more.

Sonia Delesalle-Stolper writes for Liberation © Observer

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