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Emmanuel Macron (center), candidate for the 2017 French presidential elections, takes selfies with guests during the annual dinner of the Representative Council of France's Jewish Associations (CRIF) in Paris, on Feb. 22, 2017.

Christophe Petit Tesson

Emmanuel Macron is something of an anomaly in an era of Donald Trump and Brexit.

The former investment banker has taken the French presidential election by storm with a campaign that is decidedly non-populist. Mr. Macron strongly supports the European Union, open borders and the euro. He wants French Muslims to feel more at home and has called French colonialism a "crime against humanity." And while he has never belonged to a political party or been elected, polls give Mr. Macron the best chance of becoming the next president in May.

In fact, polls show him slightly behind Marine Le Pen of the National Front in the first round of voting, on April 23, with Republicans nominee François Fillon in third. But in a showdown between Mr. Macron and Ms. Le Pen in the second round, on May 7, he would win easily.

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Read more: After Brexit and Trump, France starts to think the unthinkable

Opinion: France's last stand against populism

Konrad Yakabuski: Quelle surprise: France's political right turn

"I have a very, I would say, classical or orthodox view regarding what the EU should be," Mr. Macron said during a meeting this week in London with a small group of journalists. "I'm a strong supporter of the EU and the euro zone."

Mr. Macron, 39, doesn't shy away from being labelled pro-globalization, saying France cannot go it alone in the world. It needs the strength of the EU, especially when it comes to issues such as security, immigration and counterbalancing superpowers such as the United States and China. "In this current environment, France is not the right scale to defend your actual sovereignty," he said.

And he has little time for people like former British prime minister David Cameron, who led the losing Remain side in Britain's EU referendum campaign, and Hillary Clinton, who famously lost to Mr. Trump in last year's U.S. election. They weren't genuine, he said, pointing out that Mr. Cameron failed to make the Remain argument properly and Ms. Clinton's message was unclear.

"In all the recent elections you had a lot of classical politicians, or classical positions, pushed and promoted by people who refused to endorse them very aggressively," he said. "If you are shy, you are dead in this current environment."

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Mr. Macron is far from reserved. He grew up the eldest of three children in the northern city of Amiens, where his father was a neurologist and his mother a pediatrician. At 16, he began a relationship with his high school drama teacher, Brigitte Trogneux, who is 24 years older and the mother of three children. Worried about the optics, his parents sent him away to Paris to finish his education, but Mr. Macron and Ms. Trogneux stayed in touch and eventually married in 2007.

Once in Paris, Mr. Macron excelled in school and business. He graduated among the top of his class at the prestigious École nationale d'administration, considered the preparatory school for the country's elite.

After a stint in the Ministry of the Economy, he joined Rothschild & Cie Banque as an investment banker and made a fortune.

In 2012, President François Hollande recruited Mr. Macron to be his deputy chief of staff – to help put a more pro-business face on the fledgling Socialist administration. Mr. Macron became economy minister in 2014 but quit last year after a series of disputes with cabinet colleagues. He had mocked Mr. Hollande's punitive tax on the super-rich, saying it would turn France into "Cuba without the sun." He had also introduced a controversial set of labour reforms called the Macron Law, which also permitted some Sunday shopping.

Within months of leaving government, Mr. Macron started his own movement called En Marche!, or "On the Move!" He calls the organization neither right-wing nor left-wing and chastises all politicians for being consumed with self-interest. En Marche! has become a beacon for young professionals and those leery of the hard-right policies of Ms. Le Pen, the radical economic proposals of Mr. Fillon and the far-left platform of Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon.

"I was looking for a candidate like him," said Bertrand Boucheny, who runs a small auto parts company in Paris. "I supported the right, but Fillon is too conservative for me."

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Mr. Boucheny joined about 30 En Marche! supporters one Saturday last month at a café in an upscale part of Paris to hit the nearby streets to hand out pamphlets for Mr. Macron. "We come every weekend, and when we started there were only a few of us," said Laurent Saint Martin, 31, who is the local organizer for the Macron campaign. "Now look." Mr. Saint Martin said he used to vote Socialist or Green but joined En Marche! last fall. "We need something fresh. We need something new."

For now, Mr. Macron is benefiting from being an outsider and a fresh face. He's also been boosted by the troubles plaguing Mr. Fillon, a former prime minister who was once well ahead of Mr. Macron in opinion polls but has been beset by allegations he put his wife on the public payroll even though she did no work. Mr. Macron also got a lift on Wednesday when François Bayrou, who leads a centre-right group called MoDem, announced he wouldn't run and offered to back Mr. Macron.

"He has a good chance, but it's early," said Bruno Cavalier, the chief economist at Oddo Securities in Paris who follows the election closely. Mr. Cavalier said polls show Mr. Macron's support is soft, with about 40 per cent of his backers saying they will definitely vote for him. That compares to 80 per cent for Ms. Le Pen and 70 per cent for Mr. Fillon. He added that Mr. Macron has yet to spell out many clear policies and that his recent remarks about French colonialism drew widespread criticism. "The support for Macron today could evolve significantly – for the better or the worse," he said.

Mr. Macron insisted that he welcomes the naysayers. During the meeting in London, he talked at length about reforming France's economy, enhancing protections for the poor and keeping the borders open. He said his comment about colonialism was misconstrued but insisted that France must come to terms with its past in order to deal with today's issues. As colonialists, "we promoted, all of us, some legislation which didn't respect human [dignity] and equality of rights, so we have to deal with that, it's part of our history," he said.

And when it comes to Brexit and Mr. Trump, Mr. Macron said he is hopeful France will buck the populist trend. Then he added with a smile: "In the current environment, where extremes – anti-European anti-globalization – win elections, I think that's probably the best moment for France to decide to do the opposite."

Marine Le Pen is the leader of France's Front National, a far-right nationalist and populist party that has similarities with Trump's policies and the Brexit movement.

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