- - Monday, February 20, 2017

PARIS — In a year when the extremes were supposed to be on the rise in France, the unpopular leftist president has decided not to run for re-election, the onetime conservative favorite has been engulfed by scandal and Emmanuel Macron, a pro-market centrist and political novice, has unexpectedly become the man to beat.

Mr. Macron has edged ahead of conservative candidate Francois Fillon in polls with 23 percent support, trailing only far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen in one of the most turbulent periods in French politics in memory.

The 39-year-old Mr. Macron, who served as economic minister under outgoing Socialist President Francois Hollande, would be the heavy favorite if he and Ms. Le Pen make it to the two-candidate runoff after the first round of voting April 23.

Analysts are watching key national votes this year in France, Germany and the Netherlands to see if nationalist parties can build on the sentiment behind Britain’s Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s surprise presidential win. But Mr. Macron’s surging candidacy may cause a shift in Europe’s political winds.

“Everything is called into question all the time,” said political commentator Pierre Haski, a columnist at France’s L’Obs magazine. “What has happened in the past year is quite spectacular — it’s both disconcerting and fascinating. It has become impossible to make reliable predictions, something never seen before in French politics.”

A series of turnarounds has marked the run-up to the first round of voting. If no presidential candidate gets a majority, then the top two candidates would face off two weeks later, on May 7.

With approval ratings in the low single digits in December, Mr. Hollande stunned supporters and opponents alike by announcing that he would not run for another term.

Then, in an upset, Mr. Fillon, a former prime minister, defeated former President Nicolas Sarkozy and longtime favorite former Prime Minister Alain Juppe for the endorsement of the center-right Republican Party.

With almost a quarter of French voters saying they support him, Mr. Macron could vault into the second round of voting.

The handsome former investment banker created a center-left party, En Marche (Forward), barely 10 months ago in a bid to shake up what he views as France’s inept and hyperideological political culture. He has repeatedly criticized career politicians as self-serving and out of touch.

“We can no longer defend a political system whose practices weaken democracy,” Mr. Macron said at a recent campaign rally in Lyon. “I am not saying that left and right no longer mean anything, no longer exist, or are the same thing. I want to reconcile the two Frances that have been growing apart for too long.”

Mr. Hollande’s failure to improve the moribund French economy disappointed many voters. The national unemployment rate stands at 10 percent, roughly where it was when he took office in 2012.

The Socialists gave the nod to Benoit Hamon, who resigned as education minister in 2014 to protest what he saw as a rightward drift in the party. But he is widely considered an uninspiring leftist too far outside the mainstream to have a real shot at the presidency.

Mr. Fillon built his campaign on a pledge of honesty and belief in traditional values, but that image has been battered by a scandal over salary payments he made to his wife as a parliamentary aide when she said she never worked for him.

An opening for a fresh face

The disappointing ups and downs of the political season may have opened voters to Mr. Macron’s nonideological pitch.

“I think it’s time that this stop and that we have someone we can trust in power,” said Arnaud Simon, 47, an actor and filmmaker.

Mr. Simon’s view is gaining ground, said Bruno Cautres, a researcher at the Center for Political Research at Sciences Po. “It is not unusual for the electors to be uncertain,” he said, “but what is particular in this election is that we have never seen such an uncertain climate before.”

Mr. Macron’s inspiring message breaks away from disappointing mainstream politics, Mr. Cautres said.

Macron answers that call for a renewal,” he said. “I believe it is the succession of the two last presidents, Sarkozy and Hollande, which deeply disturbed the French people. They had two presidents with two very different personalities and with very different agendas — and both ended up failing.”

Ms. Le Pen remains formidable, topping multicandidate polls with 26 percent support, a surge that reflects widespread anger over a spate of Islamic terrorist attacks in France in the past two years and rising concerns about the influx of Middle Eastern refugees into Europe.

Although she is widely expected to make it to the second round of voting, political pundits estimate she has a ceiling of 30 percent among French voters and therefore is unlikely to win the presidency.

“Personally, she scares me,” said Pauline Duyck, 35, a Parisian who restores antique photographs. “I am worried that she can make it to the second round, but I don’t think she can win. French people are not that stupid.”

Mr. Macron is running against candidates long familiar to French voters, and his relative obscurity is proving both a blessing and a curse.

The son of two doctors, he left a career in finance to become an aide to Mr. Hollande. He was tapped as economy minister less than three years ago.

In a country long used to heavy state involvement in the economy, Mr. Macron represented an unusual choice for a Socialist president, reflecting growing disillusion.

Mr. Macron has taken pragmatic, pro-business stands, but critics say he lacks a clear agenda for the presidency.

“There is a Macron phenomenon in France because France is a disoriented and depressed country, but it’s a circus act,” said longtime commentator and historian Benoit Rayski, author of a number of books on French politics. “He is on stage as if at the theater or in a carnival where one parades around. Macron clearly says he does not have an agenda, that it’s not his goal, so basically he is blowing hot air.”

Mr. Rayski doubted that Mr. Macron could maintain his momentum. “When the campaign is in the thick of things, when he’ll have to address real issues, he will deflate like a balloon,” he said.

Mr. Macron recently offended France’s gay community when he said opponents were humiliated when the country legalized same-sex marriage in 2013.

More flubs like those would steadily tarnish the image that has made Mr. Macron an attractive alternative to politics as usual. French voters could leave him when he starts to fill in the details of his platform, said Mr. Cautres.

“He is new in politics, and his program looks fuzzy to the French people,” said the analyst. “His electorate is not stable.”

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