When Emmanuel Macron declared his candidacy for the presidency of France on November 16th, his detractors predicted the Macron "bubble" would soon burst.
But three months before the first round of the presidential election, Macron, who at 39 is the youngest candidate, has reached third place in opinion polls. One survey even put him in the second-round runoff against Front National (FN) leader Marine Le Pen.
An Odoxa poll for L'Express news magazine on January 17th showed Macron to be the most liked politician in France, with a 40 per cent sympathie rating. The possibility that he could translate that popularity into votes is giving the front-runners cold sweats.
The conservative Les Républicains candidate François Fillon tries to stay above the fray, leaving it to his “snipers” to discredit Macron by reminding voters that he was responsible for the “fiscal beating” they endured under President François Hollande.
Pierre Danon, a close adviser to Fillon, writes in Le Monde that Macron's "lukewarm policies" as economy minister in Hollande's government "drove our country to bankruptcy".
Le Pen has ridiculed Macron as “the Justin Bieber of politics”.
While Le Pen and Fillon have ties to Vladimir Putin's Russia, Macron is seen as pro-American, because he's an economic liberal, and because he gave a pro-European speech at Humboldt University in Berlin on January 10th in English.
“The presidential candidate Macron goes to Berlin to give a lecture in English … Poor France!” Le Pen tweeted.
Though he served Hollande's socialist administration, first as economic adviser at the Élysée before he became economy minister, Macron refused to participate in the Socialist Party primaries to select its presidential election candidate, which he denounced as "clan warfare". The socialist primaries take place from January 22nd to 29th.
Macron founded his own movement, En marche!, (Forward!), last April and claims he is neither left nor right. His policies seem to be both left and right.
For example, he wants to continue reforming the labour market, despite the mass protests provoked by timid reforms last year.
In his book Revolution, Macron says it doesn't make sense to try to balance the budget in the present context.
He has denounced Fillon’s intention not to reimburse certain medical expenses as “partial, unjust and inefficient”.
He promises to strengthen preventive medicine, and 100 per cent reimbursement for eye glasses, dental appliances and hearing aids.
Some 12,000 people came to Macron’s first major rally in Paris on December 10th, a number unequalled in recent French political history.
His rallies continue to attract large crowds: 1,400 in Lille on January 14th, 1,000 in Nevers and 2,500 in Clermont-Ferrand earlier this month.
At best, a few hundred people turn out for candidates in the socialist primaries.
The former prime minister Manuel Valls, who is struggling to seize the nomination, says turnout at rallies is meaningless; the former president Nicolas Sarkozy drew large crowds last autumn but he still lost the Les Républicains nomination by a wide margin.
Valls was slapped by an 18-year-old affiliated with the far right while campaigning in Brittany on Tuesday night. He remained calm, and the young man is being prosecuted.
To be defeated by Macron, who is 15 years his junior and has never held political office, would be the greatest humiliation for Valls.
If he continues to perform much better in polls than the eventual socialist candidate, many on the left will be tempted to vote for the renegade Macron.
For no one is the choice more acute than for Hollande. He preferred to accompany his culture minister to the theatre last Sunday night rather than watch the second, soporific, socialist primary debate.
Hollande has twice expressed regret that that he chose not to stand for re-election.
Observers wonder if loyalty to the Socialist Party, which he led for nine years, or to his popular former protégé Macron, will prevail.
The president’s entourage lean towards Macron.
Ségolène Royal, who was the socialist candidate in 2008, and who has four children with Hollande, said on January 15th that she would use her influence “to help whoever is in a better position ... Emmanuel looks towards the future.”
Foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, another Hollande loyalist, says: “I think the left can win, and when things are clearer, when all the candidacies are on the table, we will have to make choices.”
Jean-Pierre Mignard and Dominique Villemot, lawyers who are close to Hollande, are supporting Macron, in the hope of avoiding a run-off between right-wing and extreme right-wing candidates.
Nearly every day, some prominent personality announces that he or she is supporting Macron. Gérard Collomb, the socialist mayor and senator from Lyon, the former Green politician Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the economist Jean Pisani-Ferry and the television journalist Laurence Haim have endorsed him.
The former conservative prime minister Dominique de Villepin says: “Macron is the only presidential candidate who speaks to all the French ... For the moment, he has done the easy part: he has seduced them. Now he has to do the hard part: convince them.”