PARIS (AP) — French centrist Emmanuel Macron is a newcomer in politics with strong pro-business, pro-European views and an unconventional love story, all of which have captured the imagination of French people looking for something different but not extreme.
The tenacious 39-year-old was unknown to the French people only three years ago. He is now considered one of four front-runners, of whom the top two in Sunday's first round of voting will advance to the runoff on May 7.
It is unclear whether Macron's lack of experience in politics could weigh on the voters' choice following Thursday's attack on police officers in Paris.
The centrist has a strong stance on economic issues, but he has also put more focus on security and the fight against terrorism in recent weeks.
He is backed by defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian —one of the most popular members of the Socialist government— and former chief of the police elite unit Jean-Michel Fauvergue.
Macron has pledged to boost French police and military forces and intelligence services.
To improve Europe's security, he wants the bloc to be able to deploy at least 5,000 European border guards to the external borders of the Schengen passport-free travel zone.
Macron promotes a pro-free market, entrepreneurial spirit, arguing France should focus on getting benefits from globalization rather than the protectionist policies advocated by both the far right and the far left.
"We need Europe, my friends, so we will rebuild it," he told the crowd at his Parisian rally this week. "Because we will be stronger, I will rebuild a strong and balanced alliance with Germany in order to give Europe a new boost."
He wants more robust counterterrorism efforts in a country marked by terror attacks and pledged to put pressure on internet giants to better monitor extremism online.
He has also promised to renew the political elites by appointing a government mostly composed of new figures, some of them coming from business and civil society.
Macron has never held elected office. Socialist president Francois Hollande named him economy minister in 2014, after he worked for two years as a top adviser on economic issues at the presidential palace.
He launched his own political movement, En Marche! (In Motion!) last year to support his candidacy.
Macron's wife Brigitte is 24 years his senior. The couple has publicly described the unusual way their romance started — when he was a student at the high school where she was a teacher, in the town of Amiens in northern France.
Then called Brigitte Auziere, a married mother of three children, she was supervising the drama club. Macron, a literature lover, was a member.
Macron moved to Paris for his last year of high school.
At that time, "we called each other all the time, we spent hours on the phone, hours and hours on the phone," Brigitte Macron recalled in a televised documentary. "Little by little, he overcame all my resistances in an unbelievable way, with patience".
She eventually moved to the French capital to join him, and divorced. They've been together ever since.
The couple finally married in 2007 and Brigitte Macron is now campaigning by his side.
"I don't hide her," Macron told BFM TV this week. "She's here in my life, she has always been."
Macron studied philosophy and attended France's elite Ecole Nationale d'Administration for graduate school.
After working as a public servant for a few years, he became an investment banker at Rothschild.
As economy minister, he promoted a package of economic measures — known as the Macron law— aiming at loosening some of France's stringent labor rules in the hope of boosting job hiring.
The law notably allows more stores to open on Sundays and evenings and opens up regulated sectors of the economy.
Macron was accused by many on the left of destroying workers protection. The parliamentary debate on the law drove tens of thousands of people into the streets for months of protests across France.