In the southern French city of Toulon, 39-year-old presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron is greeted by cheering crowds as he makes his way onstage at a rally. The former investment banker, who served briefly as President Francois Hollande’s economy minister, has never been elected to political office. Yet he stands a good chance of becoming the next French president.
Analysts say this year’s election is like no other. Just two months before French voters go to the polls, party favorites have been cast out, candidates have been hit with scandals and outsiders have come to the fore. In this strange political season, it’s anybody’s guess as to who will become the next president.
Macron, who has bucked France’s two-party system to run as an independent, has injected an element of excitement and surprise into what everyone thought would be a dull contest between the same old political faces. Macron says he wants to make France daring — “make France daring again” is how he puts it — and innovative.
He tells the enthusiastic crowd in Toulon that the country has a problem. “We stigmatize failure,” he says. “So we’ve become a country that is afraid to dare. There’s nothing worse in a world economy based on innovation and risk.”
But France doesn’t look kindly on success, either, he says.
“I want to make France a country that accepts failure, embraces risk and revels in success!” he says.
Macron wants his country to be a beacon for the whole world, he says. Last week, he launched an appeal to American scientists who feel threatened by the current U.S. political climate.
“I invite you to come to France and join European and French researchers to work on climate change here,” he said in a video message he released on social media. “Because here you are welcome.”
Macron stepped down as President Francois Hollande’s economy minister six months ago to start a new party, En Marche!, and launch his campaign. His party, whose name translates loosely as “On the Move,” is described as a progressive party that takes the best from the left and right — but is neither.
The young technocrat, who calls himself a centrist, combines faith in the free market with a belief in social protections. That mix is drawing new voters like 60-year-old web designer Gilles Iltis, who attended the Toulon rally. He says Macron is the only person who can beat the far-right front-runner, Marine Le Pen.
“He can definitely win. There’s no other way,” says Iltis. “He’s young, he’s got brand new ideas — daring ideas — and he’s the only one who talks about Europe.”
Guillaume Mailey, 23, is also at the rally and says Macron is different from the usual staid French politicians.
“He’s a young man and I think he has the power to change things in France,” Mailey says. “He has a real vision for the future.”
Part of Macron’s rising fortunes are due to the troubles of the mainstream conservative candidate, Francois Fillon. He billed himself as morally irreproachable. But now he’s under investigation for a no-show jobs scheme involving his wife and two of his children.
Over the weekend, a judge said authorities would look deeper into allegations that Fillon’s wife, Penelope, may have earned a handsome salary as an assistant in his parliamentary office, without actually doing any work.
The couple has five children. After a video surfaced of Penelope Fillon telling a journalist she had never worked for her husband “as an assistant or anything else,” many were left wondering if she was even aware of her job.
The inexperienced Macron has plenty of detractors. He was met with protests on his recent campaign trip to the south, which has long been a stronghold of the far right. One man in the town of Carpentras confronted Macron in the street over the candidate’s recent comments that colonization was a crime against humanity.
“You don’t know French history,” the voter spat. “You’re too young.”
Macron made his comments about colonization earlier this month during a trip to Algeria, a former French colony. He wants to build closer relations and heal the wounds from the Algerian war for independence, which ended in 1962. But back in France, his comments infuriated French people who’d lived in Algeria for generations and been forced to flee after independence. Some 2 million arrived in France after 1962, and typically vote for the far right.
“We didn’t hurt anybody, but we farmed the land and built Algeria,” one woman said.
Meanwhile, many on the left see Macron as a traitor who betrayed Hollande and the Socialist party. Others say his lack of experience would doom France when dealing with Russia, the U.S. and China. He’s also been criticized for waiting too long to unveil his detailed platform — which he plans to do this week.
Political editor Thierry Arnaud, with French news channel BFM TV, says Macron’s past life as an investment banker doesn’t help.
“He is the hostage of the business elite and the financial industry,” says Arnaud. “He made a lot of money and that is not always an advantage when you’re running for office in France,” where showing one’s wealth can be considered crude.
Macron’s personal life has attracted both positive and negative interest. In 2007, he married his former high school French teacher, who is 24 years his senior.
I sat with Macron on the train as he headed from Paris to a campaign rally in Avignon, traveling in a second-class car. (He only travels second class). Brigitte, his wife, was at his side.
Macron told me he launched his own political movement because he believes that today’s divide between left and right is no longer meaningful.
“When you look at the key challenges of our world — innovation, digital, green technologies, our new global environment — the classical answers of the rightists and leftists are no longer valid,” he said. “We need a new software for the 21st century.”
The French presidential election takes place in two rounds. All the candidates run in the first round and the top two vote-getters face off in the second round. The candidate with a majority wins.
For now, Macron’s poll numbers continue to rise. The latest figures show him in second place, behind Marine Le Pen. And in the past week, he has been endorsed by several major political figures, including respected centrist lawmaker Francois Bayrou, who ran for president himself in 2007.
Still, many wonder if Macron will be able to gather enough support to beat Marine Le Pen in a second-round runoff.