Emmanuel Macron has emerged as undisputed king of the French center ground after he agreed to forge an alliance with François Bayrou, the veteran centrist politician against conservative and far-right rivals.
The pro-European progressive, Macron, a 39-year-old former economy minister, is now a frontrunner to become France's next leader and will draw fresh strength from Wednesday's announcement of a potentially vital alliance with veteran centrist Francois Bayrou, who decided against mounting a rival presidential bid.
Bayrou acknowledged that Macron was in a "bit of a difficult spot" yesterday as he spoke about their alliance aimed at ending the post-war lock on France's politics enjoyed by mainstream parties. "The feeling he had, I think, was that it was an important moment for him, but not only for him, for changing the political life of France," Bayrou told RTL radio.
Macron's unforeseen rise illustrates the difficulty in forecasting this year's two-stage election on April 23 and May 7 which is being widely watched by governments and investors around the world.
Polls currently show anti-EU far-right leader Le Pen winning the first round with around 25-28 percent of the vote, but losing in the second round where she needs more than 50 percent. The ultimate winner is therefore currently seen as Macron or Francois Fillon, the long-time favorite and conservative candidate for the right-wing Republicans party. But the unstable international background -- from Donald Trump and Brexit to the surge of right-wing nationalists in Europe -- is mirrored by an anti-establishment and angry mood in France.
Unpopular Socialist President Francois Hollande decided not to run for re-election in December after a five-year term marked by a series of terror attacks and high unemployment. Both the Republicans and the Socialist parties overlooked the most obvious candidates when choosing their nominee in primary votes.
A leftist alliance would make Macron's route to the presidency more difficult, but he could still -- thanks to Bayrou's decision -- claim to be the only centrist in the race. His platform -- which critics say is still too vague -- is more pro-business and reform-minded than his leftist rivals who have large tax-and-spend programs. He is also instinctively pro-European and is at ease with multiculturalism in France, whereas Fillon and Le Pen have both railed against the threat to French identity posed by Muslims in particular.
But Macron remains inexperienced, having served only two years as an economy minister and the same amount of time as a political advisor to Hollande. He was forced to backtrack last week during a visit to Algeria where he talked about France's 130-year colonial rule there as a "crime against humanity," leading to fierce attacks from his rightwing rivals.
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