As Le Pen falters, a young contender inches forward

A unexpectedly eventful French presidential election has made room for Emmanuel Macron, a very unusual insurgent, writes Colin Randall

Emmanuel Macron has more than a sporting chance of snatching victory in France’s forthcoming presidential elections. Regis Duvignau / Reuters
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The young French tourist was oblivious to the bustle and novelty while walking through arrivals in a Far East airport, clutching a book to his face as if afraid to miss a single word.

Gripping his attention was Revolution: Our battle for France by Emmanuel Macron, the centrist upstart with more than a sporting chance of snatching victory in France’s forthcoming presidential elections.

Mr Macron typically appeals to young people in good jobs or aspiring to them. No matter that he has never been elected; he served the outgoing socialist president Francois Hollande as an appointed economics minister until deciding he was not a socialist after all. And in the race for the Elysee, Mr Macron – promoting his own mould-breaking movement, En Marche (Forward) – is a front-runner. Or at least he was.

This election is extraordinary even by the eccentric standards of French public life, and gets more extraordinary almost by the day.

What distinguishes it is not the usual bad-tempered rhetoric but the astonishing fact that two leading contenders, the far-right Marine Le Pen and conventional right Francois Fillon, are mired in suspicion about fictitious jobs arranged for the benefit of family members (Mr Fillon) or party (Ms Le Pen).

Mr Fillon has robustly announced, to the consternation of many who are now deserting his camp in droves, that he will fight on despite now knowing he faces charges in what he terms an attempted “political assassination”. Ms Le Pen could well find herself in a similar position. Both blame the judicial system and, inevitably, the press.

From this unseemly mess, Mr Macron seemed most likely to profit. He has no such baggage, no obvious stains on his character beyond scurrilous innuendo about his private life that are largely dismissed as fake news. The most plausible outcome of the election seemed to be a Le Pen lead in the first round on April 23 followed by a Macron victory in the run-off two weeks later.

But the astonishing events surrounding Mr Fillon have completely changed the political landscape. It now seems increasingly likely he will end his obstinacy, recognise he simply cannot win and fall belatedly on his sword.

In the absence of Mr Hollande, who decided not to run again, there seems no serious threat from the hopelessly divided socialists. Mr Macron has at last put flesh on the bones of talk of remodelling society, producing a range of policies, but still suffers from his own inexperience.

Step forward France’s saviour from Mr Macron’s wetness behind the ears and the anti-Islam, anti-immigration Ms Le Pen’s perceived extremism: Alain Juppe, the man most commentators expect to take Fillon’s place as candidate of the centre-right Les Republicains.

And why not? Juppe may be 71 and given to occasional tetchiness but he is a former prime minister, an excellent former foreign minister, a man who exudes statesmanlike qualities.

Yet Mr Juppe, too, has known dark moments. In 2004, he received a suspended jail sentence and temporary exclusion from civic life after another fictitious jobs affair, admittedly one involving no personal gain whereas Mr Fillon is accused of paying his British wife, Penelope, and two of their children hundreds of thousands of euros from the public purse for little or no genuine work.

No doubt Mr Juppe has earned his return to grace. But Mr Macron may feel entitled, if denied the highest office of the land as a consequence, to feel that in being apparently beyond reproach in conduct past or present, he broke a cardinal sin of French politics.

It all seems to add fresh meaning to an often-used phrase reminding us this is a country that differs from so many others: l’exception francaise.

Colin Randall is a former executive editor of The National