By Michel Rose
PARIS (Reuters) - Emmanuel Macron seemed destined for a steady climb up the ranks of the French establishment when he decided to apply his skills as a deal-making investment banker to the world of politics.
But since breaking out on his own after only two years as a minister, he broadcasts a strong anti-establishment message that has helped make him favourite to win France's most uncertain presidential election in memory before his fortieth birthday.
Unknown to the wider public three years ago, if he wins next month, the 39 year-old will become France's youngest head of state since Napoleon.
Many attribute his stunning rise to a deep yearning for a fresh face, coupled with the unexpected collapse of many mainstream opponents.
An acute tactical sense has also played its part.
Tapping into disenchantment with the status quo, he has vowed to shake up the establishment - despite attending France's prestigious schools, making a killing by brokering a $10 billion deal for Rothschild, and serving in a Socialist government under President Francois Hollande.
"France is blocked by the self-serving tendencies of its elite," he told supporters at a rally in the southern French town of Pau, before lowering his voice and adding: "And I'll tell you a little secret: I know it, I was part of it."
After Rothschild, he joined Hollande's staff in the Elysee in 2012 and it was not long before he became economy minister.
There he criticised sacred cows of the "social model" such as the 35-hour working week, iron-clad job protection and jobs-for-life in the civil service.
These are messages that have made him one of France's most popular politicians, a big achievement for an ex-banker in a country where many disdain the world of high finance, though he remains mistrusted by many on the traditional left.
He says his ambition is to bridge the Left-Right divide that has long dominated French politics.
When he quit in August last year to build the "En Marche!" or "Onwards!" political movement he set up from scratch in April, many critics saw him as, at best, a shooting star of limited life-span.
But, with the Socialists in disarray and the centre-right's candidate, Francois Fillon, mired in a financial scandal, Macron emerged in pole position.
He has confounded opponents by building up huge grassroots support and winning endorsements from defecting centre-left and centre-right politicians.
Though Fillon, and now the far left's Jean-Luc Melenchon, remain to be beaten in the April 23 first round, his main rival is far-right leader Marine Le Pen of the National Front.
Le Pen, whom polls see losing heavily to Macron in the May 7 runoff, scornfully dubs him the candidate of "money".
"Monsieur Macron does not defend the interests of the people. He defends the interests of the big financial powers. He defends the interests of the big banks," she said.
Macron is married to Brigitte Trogneux who was a teacher at his school and whom he has known since he was 16 years old. Given the 24 year age difference their marriage has been the stuff of intensive coverage by glossy boulevard magazines.
In February, he publicly dismissed rumours that he had conducted a gay relationship outside his marriage.
(Editing by Richard Balmforth and Andrew Callus)