DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All right, there are about two months to go in France's presidential election. There has been a lot of populist energy in the campaign, also a lot of scandal. And from all this, a centrist 39-year-old outsider has emerged as a serious contender. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley has more.
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ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Thirty-nine-year-old Emmanuel Macron makes his way onto the stage at a rally in the southern city of Toulon basking in the crowd's enthusiasm.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) President Macron, President Macron, President Macron.
BEARDSLEY: The brand new candidate has injected an element of excitement and surprise into what everyone thought would be a dull contest between the same old political faces. Macron says he wants to make France daring and innovative.
EMMANUEL MACRON: (Through interpreter) France has a problem. We stigmatize failure, so we have become a country that is afraid to dare. There is nothing worse in a world economy based on innovation and risk. I want to make France a country that accepts failure, embraces risk and revels in success.
BEARDSLEY: Macron says France must be a beacon to the world. In a video last week, he appealed to American scientists who feel threatened.
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MACRON: I invite you to come to France and join European and French researchers to work on climate change here because here, you are welcome.
BEARDSLEY: Macron stepped down as socialist President Francois Hollande's economy minister six months ago to start a new party and launch his campaign. The young technocrat, who calls himself a centrist, combines faith in the free market with a belief in social protections. That mix is drawing new voters like 60-year-old web designer Gilles Iltis. He says Macron is the only person who can beat the far-right frontrunner Marine Le Pen.
GILLES ILTIS: Oh, definitely. I mean, there's no other way. He's young, he's got ideas. He's the only one who talks about Europe, right? And he's got brand new ideas, daring ideas because he takes the best ideas from the right and from the left.
BEARDSLEY: Part of Macron's rising fortunes are due to the troubles of the mainstream conservative Francois Fillon. Fillon billed himself as morally irreproachable. But now he's under investigation for a no-show job scheme involving his wife and children. Macron also met protestors on his campaign trip to the south, which has long been a stronghold of the far right. One man confronted Macron in the street over the candidate's recent comments that colonization was a crime against humanity.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).
BEARDSLEY: "You don't know French history," he spat, "you're too young." On the left, many see Macron as a traitor who betrayed the president and his party. Others say his lack of experience would doom France when dealing with Russia, the U.S. and China. He's also been criticized for waiting too long to unveil his detailed platform. Political reporter Thierry Arnaud says Macron isn't helped by his past life as an investment banker either.
THIERRY ARNAUD: He is, so to speak, the hostage of the business elite of the financial industry. He made a lot of money. And that is not always an advantage when you're running for office in France.
BEARDSLEY: Macron's personal life has attracted both positive and negative interest. He married his high school French teacher who is 24 years his senior. I sat down with Macron on the train as he headed to his campaign rally in a second-class car. His wife, Brigitte, was at his side.
MACRON: I launched my own movement because I do believe that today's divide between left and right is no more meaningful. Why? Because when you look at the key challenges of a world precisely about innovation, digital, green technologies, our new global environment, the classical answers of rightist and leftist are no more valid.
BEARDSLEY: Macron's poll numbers continue to rise. And in the last week, he was endorsed by several major political figures. Still, many wonder if he'll be able to gather enough support to beat Marine Le Pen in a second-round runoff. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.
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