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A middle way forward for a divided France? Macron voters hope so.

patterns of thought

Emmanuel Macron, the current favorite to be elected France's next president, is offering voters both the sort of economic deregulation that right favors and the pro-Europe safety net espoused by the left. But critics say he is just another elitist politician.

A woman walks past official posters of 2017 French presidential candidates Marine Le Pen of the National Front (l.) and Emmanuel Macron, head of the political movement En Marche!, (r.) at a local market in Bethune, France, on Monday.
Pascal Rossignol/Reuters
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France has a well-earned reputation for being quick to protest over everything from labor laws to Uber to increasing the age of retirement.

But that's not how Quentin Legouy and Jeremy Camilleri, supporters of presidential hopeful Emmanuel Macron, see their country.

The pair are convinced that Mr. Macron, who will face Marine Le Pen in France’s May 7 presidential runoff, and his “En Marche” movement will shine a light on a different side of France: a side that pounds the pavement to found startups and seeks a revival in politics.

“This is the new France, and we spoke,” says Mr. Camilleri, a young engineer, moments after Macron addressed his jubilant base after winning the first round of voting Sunday.

The presidential candidate – at turns compared to former US President Barack Obama and his message of hope, to Tony Blair’s centrist New Labour movement, and even the youthful military leader Napoleon Bonaparte – has inspired a social movement that is convinced that spanning the political spectrum is the best hope for France.

The youthful former investment banker who claims to be neither right nor left also evokes deep skepticism, seen in some of his election posters in Paris this week that were defaced with the words “ultrabanker.” But his supporters say if he delivers on his promises, he can reform France and help restore confidence to the country and the European project.

Pierre Boisard, a sociologist of work and social cohesion at ENS Cachan University, says that the French seek reform, but their leaders have failed to light the path to it. “Everyone wants change, but they are afraid,” he says. “The point with Macron is that he’s pragmatic, he’s not going to say he wants a grand reform that changes everything. He proposes changes that don’t scare people.”

Perceptions

There was reason to expect any number of outcomes in the first round. On the one hand, Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and then America's choice of Donald Trump as president pointed at a populist revolt. On the other, Austria elected a pro-European president in December, and right-wing populist Geert Wilders underperformed expectations in the Netherlands in March.

Ultimately, Macron came out over two points ahead of Ms. Le Pen, soothing pro-EU Europeans beyond France, many of whom mingled at Macron’s election event Sunday. And he currently enjoys a 20-point lead over Le Pen ahead of round two.

Charles O’Donnell, an Irish economist getting his PhD in Paris, says Macron's success so far "is a reminder not to panic, that we’re still very much together as a European society, to give us some confidence that things are going to be OK.” But he warns it’s not over – Macron has neither won nor proven he can do what he says he would do.

He needs to win over a country divided by class and geography. And in an era when Euroskepticism has reigned, even turning many a pro-EU leader Euro-reticent, Macron has come out in unfettered defense of the bloc and its future.

Although the election results pushed out of the runoff both mainstream center-right and -left parties for the first time in the Fifth Republic, Le Pen has tried to paint Macron as a political elitist disguised as a revolution. An “En Marche” post-results celebration featuring writers and celebrities at a classy bistro on Sunday night did nothing to dispel the perceptions of elitism and arrogance.

Since Sunday, Macron has been congratulated across European capitals. Earlier this month he received a phone call from Mr. Obama. Macron has received the backing of the mainstream players, including French President François Hollande.

For foes, it feeds into the idea that he’s just “Hollande-bis”: an encore of the current president and a continuation of the status quo.

A finder of consensus?

Macron is said to be inspired by an Anglo-Saxon spirit, putting particular emphasis on entrepreneurism. A fluent English speaker, he says French people “should revel in success.” At a campaign stop in Toulon earlier this year, he said France has “become a country that is afraid to dare.”

Yet he seeks this for France within the protection of the welfare state the way Nordic countries have organized their economies.

His platform has been called vague, and its left-right nature is unfamiliar – and risky – in a French context. Édouard Lecerf, global director of political opinion and research at Kantar Public in Paris, has compared him to the egg required in the emulsification of vinegar and oil to make mayonnaise.

“He’s aggregating things that come from the left and right,” Mr. Lecerf said at a meeting with the Anglo-American Press Association in Paris ahead of the first round. “You have to keep whipping for it to take shape…. If you put a little too much of one or the other at one time, it will start to turn.”

Among his proposals, he wants more welfare for the worst off, but wants to reduce public spending, getting the budget deficit to under 3 percent as the EU requires. He says he can get unemployment down to 7 percent from its current 10 percent. He wants to shed 120,000 state jobs, reduce the size of government, and make France’s famously rigid labor market more flexible.

Mr. Boisard says he believes Macron is better poised to carry out reform than his predecessors, who faced crippling protests that left economic structures largely unmoved. “He’s pragmatic,” Boisard says.

Instead of saying he’ll overhaul the labor system, for example, Macron proposes to extend unemployment benefits for workers who choose to leave their jobs. Many stay in them unhappily and unproductively for fear they’ll have nothing if they leave.

And Mr. Legouy, the “En Marche” volunteer, says by adopting policies on the right and left, Macron could introduce to France the kind of consensus that is a hallmark of the “grand coalitions” that have become common, for example, in Germany.

“Maybe it’s the best way to get the best of France,” he says. “I think French people are bored by left, right, left, right. We have to do what is best for France.”

Favorite by default

Formidable challenges lie ahead for him.

Despite the optimism of his Sunday night victory gathering – filled with young people, many of them exceedingly well-dressed – he didn’t get the most votes among young people ages 18 to 24. That age bracket went first to Mr. Mélenchon, followed by Le Pen. And the race revealed a streak of defiance in the French electorate, with over 40 percent of votes going to both the far-right and far-left.

Much of Macron’s rise has come down to luck – the woes of the ruling classes and in particular the corruption charges that engulfed center-right candidate François Fillon, who was once the clear frontrunner.

Thomas Guénolé, a professor of politics at Sciences Po in Paris, says Macron is rallying “happy France,” which could ultimately leave the country more divided.

“Macron is a champion of the part of the French population that doesn’t have serious problems in life,” Mr. Guénolé says.

If he wins and attempts his reform package, it could lead to even more digging in of heels – and some fear could even pave the way to a future Le Pen victory. Implicit in the personal comparisons to Mr. Blair and Mr. Obama is the reality of both Britain and the US today: the Labour Party is in shambles as Britain prepares to leave the EU, while Mr. Trump followed Obama into the White House.

Roland Freudenstein, director of policy at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies in Brussels, says that he hopes the “newcomer aura” that currently surrounds Macron will, if he’s elected, open space and confidence for the structural reforms that France needs, and that the EU needs of France. He says there is still a huge gap between the optimism of his movement and the hard choices implicit in reforming a country.

But he also says he believes that Macron, if adept at crossing political lines, is the best hope for a “once-in-a-half century chance to actually seriously reform France.”