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opinion

There are different ways to gauge the rise of a French politician, but you could do no worse than measuring the time elapsed between his or her first mention in Le Monde and emergence as a presidential candidate. For the two most recent occupants of the Élysée Palace, François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, the span was about three decades, reflecting the traditional dues that must be paid, networks that must be built and rivals who must be quashed en route to the top.

Emmanuel Macron's name first popped up in the centre-left Parisian broadsheet in the fall of 2011, just one of a long list of economic advisers recruited by Mr. Hollande, then a candidate for the Socialist presidential nomination. Barely five years later, after betraying his political mentor, Mr. Macron declared his own presidential candidacy. If he wins on Sunday, he will have reached the pinnacle of power in meteoric time, breaking all the rules of French protocol along the way.

That alone makes Mr. Macron one of the most fascinating political figures of his generation. Only time will tell whether he proves to be more than a flash in the pan, an empty shell propelled to the top by his own raw ambition, his country's leadership vacuum, savvy political marketing and an Eiffel Tower of luck.

For the sake of France, and Europe, let's hope so.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for one, is counting on Mr. Macron to provide desperately needed back-up as she scrambles to save the European Union. Mr. Hollande, a lame duck practically from the outset of his presidency, was of little help in that regard.

The story of how Mr. Macron, 39, managed to get so far, so fast, is a gripping tale. And it is a tale, a carefully constructed narrative colourfully illustrated by "authorized" spreads in all the respectable French gossip magazines. The Macrons – Emmanuel and wife Brigitte are only sold as a package deal – have made the cover of VSD no fewer than 10 times in the past year. Last week's 10-page spread in Paris Match marked their fifth Match cover story in a year.

A French Vanity Fair cover story last month detailed how seriously the Macrons take the management of their image, hiring France's so-called queen of the paparazzi to ensure that only the most flattering (and staged) photos of the couple get published. The gossip mags are unfailingly compliant, portraying the Macrons' unconventional relationship – she was his high-school drama teacher and is 24 years his senior – as an uplifting tale of love conquering all.

At the risk of being overexposed, and turning the stomachs of a cynical electorate, the glossy photo spreads help quell the queasiness some feel about the couple's age gap and the gay rumours that initially dogged Mr. Macron – rumours his aides blamed on a Russian disinformation campaign.

If the gossip-mag spreads reveal one side of Mr. Macron – the vain one – his plotting of his political rise reveals the ruthless one. Sensing the Socialist brand all but dead, Mr. Macron quit as Mr. Hollande's economy minister last year to form his own political movement, En Marche!, a catch-all, feel-good, policy-light vehicle for his own ambitions. Only someone with a Donald Trump-sized ego could think the manoeuvre would ever work.

But it did. Marvellously. Mr. Macron upstaged not only his former boss, who was forced to abandon his own re-election plans, but pulled the rug out from under then Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls. Countless Socialist movers and shakers rushed to Mr. Macron's side, like rats abandoning a sinking ship. That left the party in the hands of left-wing radicals who handed the Socialist nomination to an ideologue, Benoît Hamon, over the centrist Mr. Valls.

Even then, Mr. Macron still looked to be a long shot. All the polls showed former centre-right prime minister Alain Juppé having a lock on the Élysée. But Mr. Juppé ended up losing the Republican nomination to the Thatcherite François Fillon, whose candidacy was subsequently enmeshed in scandal. He had put his wife on the public payroll with little evidence she did any work.

Mr. Macron has benefited from so much luck you'd almost think he was Irish. But France is not Ireland, and France's problems – a rusty and rigid economy, a pervasive terrorist threat, a fast-growing but frustrated Muslim youth population, a bitterly divided electorate – run far deeper and Mr. Macron will need a lot more than la bonne chance to keep la République from imploding.