Macron faces biggest challenge yet in battle with Le Pen
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Emmanuel Macron, little known to the French public just three years ago, is now favourite to win the country's presidency after topping Sunday's first round vote, but faces his biggest challenge yet as he takes on far-right rival Marine Le Pen.
According to an almost-complete count, Macron beat Le Pen by around 24 percent to 22 percent in Sunday's first-round of voting. The two will now face off in the decisive second round in two weeks time.
It was a huge triumph for 39-year-old Macron, who has never been elected to public office and was virtually unknown in France before becoming economy minister three years ago. He also only founded his political movement just last year.
Macron is widely expected to beat Le Pen with ease in the second round as voters from the left and right rally to prevent the National Front leader from becoming president.
'A new campaign is starting'
But some analysts warn his task may be more difficult than it appears at first sight.
"It's more complicated than it looks - a new campaign is starting," said Francois Miquet-Marty of pollster Viavoice.
"Marine Le Pen is going to frame this as a face-off between Emmanuel Macron, the candidate of the globalised elite, and herself as the people's candidate," he said. "She has a line of attack that can hit the bullseye."
A former investment banker, Macron was appointed an economic adviser by Socialist President Francois Hollande before becoming economy minister in 2014. He is known for his pro-business and pro-European views.
On Sunday night, Le Pen and her allies dismissed Macron as the candidate of a dying establishment: "Change is obviously not going to come from the heir of Francois Hollande and his disastrous mandate of failures," she told supporters.
Miquet-Marty said Macron would "need a more offensive approach, and to distill the message that a Macron presidency would be more peaceful than a Le Pen one".
Another problem facing Macron is that he needs a victory against Le Pen big enough to enlist popular figures from established parties in the parliamentary election that follows in June.
Analysts say that if Macron fails to win more than 60 percent in the second round, he may find it hard to reassure a divided country that he has what it takes to reform the eurozone's second-largest economy, which is only starting to pick up speed after five years of anaemic growth.
Then, in turn, he might struggle to turn his promise to transcend traditional party divides into a working majority for his En Marche! (Forward!) movement in the parliamentary election, six weeks later.
Perhaps worryingly for the centrist independent, Macron's total vote count on Sunday was the lowest score of any first-round winner since 2002.
Then, it was Jacques Chirac who scored only 20 percent - but benefited from a joint effort by all mainstream parties to block his National Front challenger, Le Pen's father Jean-Marie, to secure a crushing win in the runoff by 82 percent to 18.
This time, the mainstream conservatives and Socialists also quickly urged their supporters to vote to block Marine Le Pen.
But in 2017, the endorsements of conservatives and Socialists combined account for only 26 percent of votes.
And those endorsements from mainstream parties could also work against Macron in a country where the divide between 'haves' and 'have nots' has been pushing up support year after year for Le Pen's message that only she can defend French workers' jobs and rights.
In his favour, analysts say, is the fact that 35 percent of voters thought Macron was the best candidate to put the French economy on the right track, against only 20 percent for Le Pen, according to a recent Odoxa poll.
Meanwhile Le Pen's anti-euro stance, which is rejected by many of her own supporters, as well as a majority of voters, offers him a promising line of attack.
Many analysts are now turning their attention beyond his expected victory in the second round to ask whether he can gather the political muscle to enact his programme.
"His parliamentary majority could be extremely fragmented. We could find ourselves in a situation similar to what happened under the Fourth Republic, with an unstable majority," said political analysts Philippe Cossalter of Sarre University.
Macron's answer is that he has spent the last year proving the pundits wrong, and will do so again.
"They're taking the French for idiots," he said at a recent rally. "The French are consistent. That's why, six weeks later, they will give us a majority to govern and legislate."
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)