Emmanuel Macron stands on brink of French presidency and vows to 'protect, transform and build'

David Chazan
French centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron  - AP

It felt more like a huge party than a political rally. Dance music blared as a triumphant Emmanuel Macron arrived to greet thousands of cheering supporters and activists waving tricolour French flags at a Paris exhibition centre.

Unknown to the public until two years ago and initially ruled out as a serious contender, the fresh-faced 39-year-old independent centrist now stands on the threshold of the French presidency.

If Mr Macron goes on to trounce the Front National’s Marine Le Pen in the May 7 runoff, as opinion polls predict, the relative political newcomer will be France’s first president from outside an established party in nearly a century — and its youngest head of state since Napoleon.

Many in the rapturous crowd were in their 20s and 30s, energetic young professionals and students who for months devoted evenings and weekends to handing out pamphlets and spreading his message on voters’ doorsteps.

Mr Macron raced on to the stage, hand in hand with his wife, Brigitte, his former drama teacher who is 24 years his senior. Early in the campaign he was forced to deny rumours that he was gay.

“The French people have expressed themselves,” he said. “It is an honour and a responsibility.”

He then paid tribute to the other candidates, naming most of them — but not Ms Le Pen — and thanking them for their messages of support after a campaign “marked by terrorism”.

French centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron kisses his wife Brigitte before addressing his supporters at his election day headquarters in Paris Credit: AP

An independent centrist who formed his own movement only a year ago, Mr Macron’s lightning ascent has belied doubts about his ability to win over “la France profonde,” the French heartlands.

He casts himself as an outsider who will shake up France’s traditionally bipartisan politics, but uphold democratic and civilised values against the "extremism" and "xenophobia" of Ms Le Pen.

“In a year, we have changed the face of French politics,” he said. “You have succeeded in convincing people that hope for our country is not a dream… In two weeks, I hope I will be your president, the president of the whole of France, the president of the patriots,” — the term Ms Le Pen uses for her supporters.

He added: “The challenge will be to break with the system that for 30 years has proved unable to solve the problems of our country…I want to build a majority for change and transformation, composed of new talent.”

Olivier Lecerf, 58, an advertising executive, said: “I’m really happy. His trajectory has been absolutely incredible. He’s created a political start-up and a completely new model.”

In contrast to Ms Le Pen’s anti-EU stance, Mr Macron defines himself as “progressive and pro-Europe”.

A former Rothschild’s banker who has never before been elected or even stood for office, his opponents have questioned his ability to govern without the backing of a established party apparatus.

Macron v Le Pen second round scenario

He has responded by saying his movement, En Marche! (On The Move), which numbers more than 250,000 members, will field candidates in every constituency in the June parliamentary elections.

Like Mr Macron, many will not have stood for elected office before. He has sought to make a virtue out of this, saying French politics needs an influx of people from other walks of life to find new solutions for the stagnating economy and high unemployment.

Despite the extensive powers wielded by French presidents, if Mr Macron fails to win a majority, he may be forced into unwieldy alliances with members of the centre-Right Republicans and the Socialists.

In a campaign that focused more on personalities than policies, his “neither Left nor Right” manifesto offered few bold initiatives.

He is calling for a loosening of regulations to make France more business-friendly, but has stopped short of the Thatcherite reforms and drastic cuts proposed by the scandal-tainted centre-Right candidate, François Fillon.

He has promised to invest €50 billion in public services, reduce council tax and cut France’s generous unemployment benefits.

Eric Beala, 35, a computer engineer, said: “Life is going to change. This is a man who isn’t a traditional French politician. This is more American-style — I mean Obama, not Trump.”

Rachel-Flore Pardo, 23, a law student, said: “This is wonderful for us. All the work we’ve done has paid off.”

Profile | Emmanuel Macron

 

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