From the stage in a packed concert hall, France’s youngest presidential candidate looked up at the thousands of people who had come to witness his trademark thunderous speaking style.
“Never accept those who promote exclusion, hatred or closing in on ourselves!” Emmanuel Macron urged the audience in Lille, a city surrounded by France’s leftwing northern heartlands that are increasingly turning to Marine Le Pen’s far-right Front National. “When the Front National promises to restore security points at the border, they are lying,” he said.
Then the maverick centrist, who is running an independent, outsider campaign, did something no others are doing. He hailed the European Union to a standing ovation. “Europe is us! Brussels is us! We need Europe!” he shouted. Cheering supporters, many in their 20s, stood up waving EU flags.
Macron is becoming a growing phenomenon in the highly unpredictable French presidential election campaign. In recent weeks, the maverick former economy minister has begun to rise so steadily in polls that he is now seen as capable of causing a major surprise in the spring vote – perhaps able to reach the final round by knocking out one of the current top contenders: the rightwing, social conservative, free-market reformist François Fillon and the far-right, anti-immigration, anti-EU Marine Le Pen.
When Macron launched his outsider bid to blow apart the inadequacies of the “vacuous” political class two months ago, he was bucking every trend in French politics. The 39-year-old former investment banker, who had been a chief adviser and then economy minister to François Hollande, was not a member of any political party. He had never run for any kind of election. He defined himself as “neither left nor right”, and only two years before, the public had never even heard of him. He was more than a decade younger than any serious presidential contender, and his disgruntled opponents inside French traditional parties said he was a “champagne bubble” waiting to burst.