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Macron, 39-year-old French prodigy eyeing presidency

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French presidential election candidate for the En Marche ! movement Emmanuel Macron gestures at the end of a speech during a campaign meeting in Furiani, on the French Mediterranean island of Corsica, on April 7, 2017. PASCAL POCHARD-CASABIANCA / AFP

“Neither of the right, nor the left” in his own words, Emmanuel Macron is a 39-year-old former banker hoping to convince the French to take a chance on his brand of youthful optimism.

He has never been elected and only launched his party last April, but polls currently show Macron as one of the frontrunners for the two-stage election next Sunday and on May 7.

After quitting his job as economy minister under unpopular President Francois Hollande in August, he has concentrated on building up his own centrist political movement called “En Marche” (“On the Move”).

The accomplished pianist and lover of poetry was initially dismissed by sceptics as appealing to a narrow group of young, urban professionals but his packed rallies and voter surveys show otherwise.

“We can’t respond with the same men and the same ideas,” Macron said as he launched his presidential bid in November at a jobs training centre in a gritty Parisian suburb.

With frustration at France’s political class running high, Macron has tapped into a desire for wholesale change that has also propelled far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon.

“I’m here because he’s young, he’s dynamic. It’s like a breath of fresh air,” 23-year-old shop worker Marine Gonidou told AFP at a rally in Brittany in January.

At 39, Macron would be the youngest French leader in modern history, upending tradition that has seen voters tend to favour experience in their powerful presidents.

Although positioned as an outsider, the brilliant student followed a well-worn path through elite French universities including ENA, which serves as a finishing school for top civil servants and future leaders.

After going into banking, where he earned nearly 2.4 million euros ($2.6 million) from 2011-2012 at Rothschild, Macron became an economic advisor to Hollande in 2012 and then economy minister two years later.

During his time in government, he is best known for a free-market law that bears his name which liberalised the bus sector, allowed large stores to open at weekends and offered investment incentives to farmers.

The legislation was strongly contested by France’s powerful trade unions and had to be rammed through parliament using executive powers, but it helped cement his image as an economic reformer.

“I want us to be able to start a business more easily, to innovate more easily” is one of his mantras, repeated at rallies and explained in his pre-election book “Revolution”.

As well as wanting to improve the business environment, he stresses the need to improve education in deprived areas and has spoken out against stigmatising Muslims with France’s strict rules on secularism.

His championing of tech firms and the “Uber-isation” of the economy, in which people increasingly work as independents rather than as employees, has helped burnish his image as a moderniser.

After looking the most likely next president for the last few months, polls have shown support for him falling slightly in recent weeks.

The outcome of the election will be the ultimate test of his claim that France is “contrarian” — ready to elect a pro-EU, pro-globalisation liberal at a time when rightwing nationalists are making electoral gains across the world.

– Childhood romance –

In his personal life, Macron is anything but orthodox.

The theatre lover from a middle-class family in northeast France fell in love with his secondary school drama teacher, Brigitte Trogneux, in a story that has captivated the French media.

Trogneux, a mother of three children 24 years older than him, went on to divorce her husband and marry the young prodigy in 2007.

“At the age of 17, Emmanuel said to me: ‘Whatever you do, I will marry you!’,” Trogneux told Paris Match magazine last April.

Some have found the relationship difficult to believe despite their numerous appearances on the front of the Paris Match society magazine, forcing Macron to repeatedly laugh off rumours he is gay.

He has a masters in philosophy and once worked as an assistant to renowned French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, helping him to publish his last book before his death.

While at ease among ordinary voters and charismatic, Macron has been accused of being condescending in the past, whether referring to “illiterate” abattoir workers, “alcoholic” laid-off workers or the “poor people” who travel on buses.

In an infamous exchange, when confronted by a protester in a T-shirt in May last year, he lost his cool, saying: “The best way to buy yourself a suit is to work.”

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