Meet Emmanuel Macron, the surprise front-runner in France’s presidential race

With former favourite Francois Fillon steeped in scandal, surveys now indicate that the main competitor against the anti-immigration, anti-Muslim Front National (FN) party of Marine Le Pen will be the 39-year-old former investment banker

Emmanuel Macron, head of the French political movement En Marche and candidate for the 2017 presidential election, reacts after delivering a speech during a campaign rally in Lyon, France, on February 4, 2017. Robert Pratta / Reuters
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He is a former investment banker with a socialist past who has emerged as the surprise front-runner in the French presidential election.

With former favourite Francois Fillon steeped in scandal, surveys now indicate that the main competitor against the anti-immigration, anti-Muslim Front National (FN) party of Marine Le Pen will be 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron.

Both candidates held separate rallies in Lyon during a weekend of campaigning, where Mr Macron pledged to unite a divided France saying “I am not going to say that the left or right is meaningless, that they are the same thing. But are these divisions not a hurdle? I want to reconcile the two Frances that have been growing apart for too long.”

Mr Macron – who broke away from the Socialist Party – formed a new, centrist party called En Marche! (or “Let’s Get to Work”) last April. Although he served as France’s economy minister from 2014 to 2016, he has cast himself as an outsider to the French political establishment.

“I’ve seen the emptiness of our political system from the inside,” Mr Macron said, during the speech in which he announced his presidential candidacy in November. “I reject this system.”

Opinion polls show that Mr Macron will earn 22 to 23 per cent of the vote in the primary round of voting on April 23. Ms Le Pen is expected to top that round of votes with 26 to 27 per cent; Republican candidate Francois Fillon is projected to earn 19 to 20 per cent, while the Socialist Party’s nominee Benoit Hamon has been predicted to clock in 18 per cent.

But in the run-off round of voting on May 7, when voters will choose between the top two candidates, Mr Macron is expected to beat Ms Le Pen soundly, earning between 59 and 65 per cent of the votes, according to the polls.

Mr Macron’s rise in these projections has been helped, in no small part, by the self-combustion of Mr Fillon.

Once a favourite in the presidential race, Mr Fillon’s prospects plummeted after it emerged that he paid his wife a salary of thousands of euros to do no work.

But Aurelien Mondon, a senior lecturer in French politics at the University of Bath in England, cautioned that the polls could not be trusted absolutely with nearly three months to go before voting opens.

"We have only just found out who the main contenders will be, and it remains unclear what impact the scandals Francois Fillon is embroiled in will have," Dr Mondon told The National. A new alliance of Left parties could emerge, he said, and "in these times of deep political distrust, abstention will play a key role, something that is too often ignored by opinion polls and their subsequent analysis".

Mr Macron enjoys the benefits of being simultaneously perceived as an outsider and an insider.

The son of a neurologist and a doctor, Mr Macron studied mostly in Amiens, in northern France. Although he trained to be a civil servant and worked briefly as a bureaucrat, he moved into investment banking at Rothschild & Cie in 2008. When he moved back into public service in 2012, it was as an adviser to President Francois Hollande.

“He does not have a long history in politics, does not come from the same background as traditional contenders, and thus he can truly appear as something different,” Dr Mondon said.

Mr Macron is also "widely seen as one of the brightest civil servants", said Jean-Yves Camus, a political analyst with the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs and co-author of the recently-published Far-Right Politics in Europe. "However he is campaigning without the backing of any political party. This is why he is seen as an outsider, but with an insider's experience."

Key to Mr Macron’s campaign platform is a liberal, multicultural vision of France – one that Ms Le Pen does not share. “His view of Islam and immigrants are more liberal than many of his opponents,” Dr Mondon said.

“He is not ideological, in the sense that he does not refer to any established ideology of the 20th century,” noted Mr Camus. “But he is a man with firm beliefs, including the humanitarian values that immigrants played a significant part in building our country, that refugees from the Middle-East and Africa are fleeing war-torn countries and should be allowed into Europe.”

Mr Macron also believes that Islam should have a place in France, Mr Camus said. During his speeches, for instance, Mr Macron has criticised France’s banning of the f headscarves worn by Muslim women at universities.

“I do not personally believe that we should invent new texts, new laws, new standards, to go after veils at universities, to go hunt down those who wear religious symbols during field trips,” he said last year.

It will be advantageous to Mr Macron if he contests the run-off against Ms Le Pen and her brand of divisive, right-wing politics, said Mr Camus.

“His best asset is that more than 60 per cent of the French say they will never vote for FN, and Macron can attract a wide range of voters from both the centre-left and the centre-right, plus non committed voters.”

* Additional reporting from Agence France-Presse