PARIS: France’s 39-year-old president Emmanuel Macron is an ex-investment banker whose rapid rise has smashed traditions and raised expectations sky-high.
The son of two doctors from the northeastern city of Amiens — the youngest president in French history — breaks the mould of a traditional French leader.
The pianist and poetry lover is married to his former teacher, glamorous 64-year-old Brigitte Macron, a divorced mother of three children whom he fell in love with as a schoolboy.
Their relationship has been a subject of fascination, often encouraged by the media-savvy Macron, and she is set to take on a prominent role as a First Lady focused on education and charitable causes.
He has also charted one of the most unlikely paths to the presidency in modern history, from virtual unknown three years ago to leader with no established party behind him.
In a country where political careers have traditionally been built over decades, he has never before held elected office.
He launched his independent movement Republique En Marche (Republic on the Move, REM) only 13 months ago, which he said was “neither of the left nor the right”.
This unusual positioning for France, which has seen him borrow economic policies from the right coupled with social measures from the left, was initially met with cynicism.
“There is a left and a right… and that’s a good thing, that’s how our democracy functions,” former critic Manuel Valls, a Socialist ex-prime minister, said at the time.
Others saw the ambitious graduate of elite public sector university ENA as too young and too inexperienced to become leader.
Few apart from his loyal core of advisors believed that he had the ability to triumph in 2017 at the age of 39, a year younger than Napoleon Bonaparte when he took power in 1804.
But Macron pressed on, using his image as a dynamic young moderniser to draw in thousands of volunteers to En Marche, which was modelled partly on the grassroots movement of ex-US president Barack Obama in 2008.
After resigning from his job as economy minister in August last year, he set about writing his pre-election book “Revolution” and then finally declared he was running for president on November 16.
“We can’t respond with the same men and the same ideas,” he said at the launch in a jobs training centre in a gritty Parisian suburb.
After that, he benefited from the woes of the Socialist party and a scandal that engulfed one-time favourite Francois Fillon from the rightwing Republicans party, the other mainstream force in French politics.
Fillon was accused of paying his wife hundreds of thousands of euros from the public purse for a fake job as a parliamentary assistant — allegations he denied but which sunk his campaign.
“He’s been lucky,” veteran political journalist Anne Fulda, who wrote a recent biography called “Emmanuel Macron, Such A Perfect Young Man”, told AFP. “That’s something that helped him considerably. The stars aligned.”
With frustration at France’s political class running high, Macron was able to tap into a desire for wholesale change that also propelled his far-right rival Marine Le Pen into the final round of the election last Sunday.
Fans compare him to ex-British prime minister Tony Blair or reformist Italian premier Matteo Renzi, while his most ardent admirers see parallels with assassinated US president John F. Kennedy.
But he will now face formidable political opponents in the Republicans party and Le Pen’s National Front as well as fierce resistance from the country’s powerful trade unions which are gearing up for a fight.
“I’ve spoken with hundreds of people and you can feel it in the air: you are already hated,” one far-left critic, Francois Ruffin, wrote recently in Le Monde newspaper.
While at ease among ordinary voters, 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.”
His immediate task now will be to name a prime minster and government, then set about winning a majority in parliamentary elections set for June 11 and 18.
Macron has promised to refresh France’s parliament and his party unveiled 428 out of its 577 candidates on Thursday. Half of them had never held elected office and half were women.