In a jam-packed sports arena on Easter Monday, the man currently tipped to win the French presidential election—a strikingly young politician fighting his first-ever campaign—stood on a spotlit podium in front of more than 20,000 people, promising to transform his country's government and kickstart its flagging economy.
"Every generation has its role in history!" said Emmanuel Macron, 39, a liberal, pro-E.U. economist who until a year ago served in President François Hollande's government. "Our generation is to govern our country effectively together," Macron shouted, over loud chants from the crowds of, "We will win! We will win!"
Standing on the floor, Nicole Landre, a 60-year-old marketing manager from the affluent Paris suburb of Sevres, was thrilled. "I have always voted conservative," she said. "But not this time. Macron is brilliant. He is young. He is our own J.F.K."
On Thursday, another politician often compared to JFK gave Macron a friendly call: Barack Obama. The former President issued a statement saying he "appreciated the opportunity to hear from Mr. Macron about his campaign and the important upcoming presidential election."
The call from the former U.S. President was in the works for a few weeks, according to Macron's campaign spokeswoman Laurence Haim. "We have been in contact for the past weeks, both teams," Haim, who was previously a political correspondent in Washington, told TIME. Former Obama officials, she said, "are really following what is happening in France."
Obama enjoys huge popularity in France—support that reached a high point last year during the global climate talks, which Paris hosted. Nonetheless, Haim said, it was not a formal endorsement "but a conversation between two men who share the same democratic values." The presidential imprimatur might seem to add to the growing sense of inevitability surrounding Macron — but it is still deeply uncertain whether the young centrist can emerge from this bruising election as the winner.
The final countdown
Just two days before the country is set to vote on Sunday, in the first round of an election many see as its most consequential in decades, all is still to play for. The two parties that have governed France for nearly 50 years—the ruling Socialist Party and the Republicans—have floundered badly amid voter anger and scandal. Instead insurgents and outsiders are competing at the top of the polls, turning the normally predictable French political scene into a free-for-all fight.
Polls on Thursday showed Macron in a virtual dead-heat in the first-round election with far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, each with about 23 percent of intended voters. The Republican candidate, former Prime Minister François Fillon, and the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, both trail just a few points behind; the Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon lags badly behind all those—a possible death knell for France's Socialist Party itself.
"The competition is very high in this election," says Guillaume Liegey, cofounder of the Paris campaign technology company Liegey Muller Pons, who helped design Macron's political strategy last year when he abandoned France's deeply unpopular leader to launch his new movement, En Marche! (On the Move!) "For the first time we have four candidates who could qualify for the second round," he says. "We have never seen that before."
The two top vote-getters among the 11 candidates on Sunday's ballot will face a run-off election on May 7, and for weeks the most likely scenario has been a contest between Macron and Le Pen. At that point, according to most polls, left-wing and right-wing voters will band together to vote for Macron, no matter what their political views are, in order to deny Le Pen the presidency. The right-winger is vowing to take France out of the E.U., drop the use of the Euro and bring back a national currency, and drastically roll back all immigration.
Barnstorming across the country, Le Pen has raced to mobilize her supporters in the final days of the campaign. In an Easter Monday rally across Paris from Macron's huge crowds, a far smaller audience of about 6,000 packed a concert hall, to hear her final plea to "take back France," and to block illegal immigration. "We are in a political crisis, and we need to get out of the E.U.," says Hugo Jorge-Novio, 22, a law student from northern France. A history student named Adrien, 21, did not want to give his last name, since his fellow students at the Sorbonne University in Paris "do not approve of what I think," he says. "I am strongly against immigration. Many young people want to protect their identity," he said, seated in the hall at Le Pen's public meeting.
Those fears will likely propel Le Pen into the second round, polls suggest, but that they are not enough to clinch the presidency for her.
The problem with polling
Then again the polls could all be wrong. As the race has tightened over the past two weeks, pollsters have warned that while the line-up of candidates has seemed relatively stable, the election remains very unpredictable—and that the elections could yet produce a massive upset.
In a country where people generally keep their views to themselves, the prospect of a totally unpredictable outcome has exploded in conversation over the past week. There is almost incessant political talk in every café, street market, and taxi. Some speculate that Mélenchon will stun France by sweeping to victory on his firebrand message of supertaxes on the rich, retirement benefits at age 60, and redistributing France's wealth.
Others swear Fillon—under judicial probe for misusing public funds—will ultimately win, as millions of Le Pen's supporters switch their votes at the last minute to the seasoned conservative politician. As a few parents from Paris's Left Bank—a more liberal and also more moneyed area—stood chatting on Thursday, some speculated about leaving France altogether, should Mélenchon or Le Pen win.
Polls suggest 22 percent of voters are still not sure they will vote at all, and about 30% of voters say they are not sure for whom they will vote—a higher percentage than in previous elections, where there were fewer candidates and a near-certainty that the winner would come from one of the two traditional parties.
"Usually you have a part of the voters who decide at the last minute, and now we have an even larger proportion," says Edouard Lecerf, global director of political opinion and research at Kantar Public in Paris. The company polled voters last weekend, and found that while most had already chosen a candidate, some were not totally certain.
The big question
That uncertainty could impact one candidate far more than others: Emmanuel Macron.
Macron's program is a mix of both left-wing ideas, like strong climate-change regulations and EU commitments; and right-wing policies, like giving companies greater ability to fire employees, and rolling back special wealth-taxes on the richest citizens. "What Emmanuel Macron has done at 39 years old has never been done before," says Haim. A year ago, when Macron launched his political movement, "everyone was saying it is completely surreal, he does not have a party behind him," Haim says. "One year later, he's a favorite to win the election. It is absolutely extraordinary for someone to do that in France."
Macron designed his En Marche! movement after a similar insurgent campaign — that of Obama in 2008, according to Liegey, who volunteered for that Obama campaign while he was a student at Harvard University. "This [En Marche!] is very much like a U.S. movement," he said on Thursday. "Emmanuel Macron did exactly what Obama dad: He built a movement outside of the party structure."
But his mix of left- and right-wing politics appear to have come at a price. About one-third of his likely voters polled last weekend by Kantar said they could perhaps change their mind before Sunday's election—a high enough proportion to make the result highly uncertain. The question is, Lecerf says, "will they confirm their choice in the end, or will they radically change?"
By Sunday night, the French will know the answer to that.