The polls put Macron second to far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the first round and set to beat her in the 7 May deciding round.
Valls says that is why he is backing him, along with several other Socialist and mainstream-right politicians who have turned their backs on their own parties’ candidates.
But what about the more than 200,000 people who have joined Macron’s En Marche ! (Let’s Go!) movement? What’s drawing them to a political new boy who’s never before been elected to any political office?
Young, fresh and consensual
“Yes, Macron is a former banker, he didn’t make money through politics, he worked!” says self-made man Patrick Robin. He’s one of several entrepreneurs invited to speak at the centrist candidate at a public meeting near Paris.
The audience laughs.
“People say he’s too young but I’d like to have a young president, rather than someone who became a politician at an age when most people are retiring from the public sector,” Robin says wryly.
“They say he has no experience and it’s true he’s not part of the system, he’s not complicit. They say his programme is tepid and consensual, but how can you reproach someone for wanting to bring people together?”
The applause grows. But his final phrase brings some people to their feet.
“The first time I voted was for François Mitterrand in 1981; for the last 25 years I’ve voted against [someone] but on 23 April I’ll be voting for someone.”
Doing the business for France
Stéphanie Delestre is next to take to the floor. The dynamic young woman of Corsican descent tells the audience how, growing up in the high-rise estates of neighbouring Vitry-sur-Seine, her postal address was a barrier to getting hired. How she started lying about where she lived, and then finally got a break abroad, in the German city of Hamburg.
She started her business qapa.fr from scratch, built it up and is now proud to employ 70 people. But doing business in France remains a struggle.
“As an entrepreneur, we pay a lot of taxes,” she says. “We pay social security on each payroll so it doesn’t help us to recruit, to develop our companies, to go internationally. Everything became very complicated in the last 20 years.”
She believes Macron’s free-market platform will give French companies a much-needed boost by giving them more freedom.
“What is interesting with Emmanuel Macron is that he wasn’t a politician for the last 20 years,” Delestre declares. “He’s used to working like a banker, he knows economics and he knows a lot of people around the world. What’s important for me is to be sure France will be attractive again. This is the best country in the world. Perhaps Macron can help us.”
Winds of change in France’s richest town
A wave of uncustomary “yes we can-ness” is palpable in this cinema in the town of Neuilly-sur-Seine, a wealthy, leafy suburb west of Paris.
In the 2012 presidential elections 84 percent of Neuilly voters backed mainstream right candidate Nicolas Sarkozy. He lost to Socialist François Hollande but Neuilly remained a bastion of the right.
Yet supporters of Macron’s En Marche say they’re making significant inroads here. The département in which Neuilly is situated now has more than 12,000 En Marche members: the largest number outside Paris itself.
“I’m really proud to do what we’re doing for Macron,” says Serge Levinshon, knowledge manager with Engie and head of the Neuilly En Marche committee.
“We are 200,000 people behind him. And we are 3,000 leaders of local committees and most are people like me, who’re not involved in politics. We’re looking for something else in politics.”
Levinshon voted for François Fillon in the mainstream right Republicans primaries but turned to Macron when Fillon was accused of giving family members fake jobs on the government payroll.
“I thought he was honest, but everybody sees that he has a big problem with money,” Levinshon says, still visibly outraged. “He’s not honest. Macron is.”
There is no doubt Macron has benefited from Fillon’s wranglings with the judiciary and the splintering of the Socialist Party after left-winger Benoît Hamon won its primary.
But, like Robin, Levinshon insists he’s voting for something, not simply against Fillon.
“This is a very collaborative movement and this is the first time we see that in France,” he comments. “All traditional parties have a top-down culture but the Macron movement has a collaborative movement from down to the top.”
That image is one of the advantages of creating a party from scratch.
“I appreciate also the idea that different kinds of people can work together, from left to right. So for the moment he’s trying to gather all these people to work together.”
Critics say cherry-picking ideas from the left and the right makes Macron’s message inaudible and will make it impossible to govern, should he get into power. But Levinshon says the common thread is the programme. Providing you adhere to that “you can come from wherever you want”.
Free market and social justice
Macron says he is offering a blueprint rather than the traditional list of promises that the winner often fails to honour.
He describes En Marche as neither right nor left, but pragmatic, progressive and pro-European. His economic programme is advocates freeing up the labour market by cutting back on civil servants and business taxes and allowing companies flexibility on the 35-hour work week.
But he also promises to be strong on social justice: favouring low-income households by investing in training and education and inciting busineses to help France’s outsiders: the less-skilled, young and unemployed.
En Marche promises to transform France, preparing it for the digital, globalised world. For that, it needs input from both the right and the left, its supporters argue.
But Macron, who has made pragmatism his buzzword, has been mocked in debates for daring to agree with his rivals.
Macron the Messiah
Self-employed Valérie Bonnefond, 40, was converted to the Macron cause from the moment it was launched in April last year.
“He stands for change, a break with everything that’s gone before,” she declares. “He’s come at just the right moment for France, we were waiting for him. He’s like the Messiah. Seriously!”
The movement currently has 230,000 members throughout France.
“I go out three times a week, handing out leaflets on markets, going to people’s houses,” says Delphine Méric, 39, brandishing a leaflet setting off Macron’s piercing blue eyes and pearly-white teeth.
She works for a tech company but is also a Socialist town councillor in Asnières, near Neuilly. She finally joined the movement three months ago.
“I’m still Socialist but I could no longer accept (former prime minister) Manuel Valls’s stance on immigration. It was too hard for me.”
Méric feels comfortable with the En Marche line that controlled immigration can be good for the economy and that France should honour its obligation to welcome refugees.
Liberty, equality and Europe
Macron has managed to garner support from people of different age groups.
Jacques Gandillon cuts an imposing figure in smart camel coat and matching scarf. The retired banker feels Macron is the candidate who best embodies the values of the Republic.
“Liberty is a value for the right, equality is the best value for the left,” he says. “And the last one, fraternity, is the symbol of France and the symbol of Macron. He’s like the synthesis of these three values.”
His partner, Michèle de Laplanque, similarly well turned-out in heels, a suit and perfectly coiffed hair, is a retired civil servant who has voted for the right all her life. She was on course to back Fillon until the scandal broke. She still hasn’t made up her mind but says she appreciates Macron’s youthful energy.
“He’s young, he’s worked in a bank, so it’s an interesting experience. And some of his ideas are very interesting concerning, for example, education.”
Macron’s most radical proposal in the field of education is to cut primary school class sizes to 12 in poor neighbourhoods in a bid to tackle underachievement and high youth unemployment.
And in what Macron sees as a correct reading of France’s law on secularism, which puts all religions on an equal footing, he would not extend the ban on the Muslim veil to university students, something financial adviser Pierre Serman, a Socialist, appreciates.
“He understands what secularism is,” he enthuses. “It’s not against religion, not against Islam. He’s also a real European and we can’t be out of Europe.”
Macron is arguably the most European of the candidates. He promises to keep to the EU’s three-percent limit on public deficits and wants further integration of the eurozone via a common investment budget. He is banking on closer ties with Germany and a recent meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel suggested it would got off to a good start.
Where does the money come from?
Macron isn’t short of detractors though. A citizen’s movement called Toutsaufmacron (Anything but Macron) claims he is the worst and most dangerous candidate of them all: a sort of reheated version of incumbent François Hollande, trying to distance himself from an economic programme he himself cooked up.
It also claims the candidate who pretends to be squeaky clean and plans to clean up political life - any judicial investigation and you’re out - is mired in his own scandal. The charge is based on Macron’s links to an investigation into possible favouritism over a 2016 event in Las Vegas where he was the main speaker. As a former banker with Rothschild, Macron must, they believe, have compromising connections with the world of high finance.
The suspicions are linked to the fact that as a new party with no MPs En Marche receives no state funding and relies entirely on donations.
Christian Dargnat, in charge of party fund-raising, told the Mediapart website that eight million of a 16-million-euro target had been raised by early March from some 30,000 donors.
While half had given less than 50 euros, 160 had given more than 5,000. This is below the legal limit of 7,500 but enough to feed rumours that Macron would be held to ransom by influential lobby groups or investors should he become president.
Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon recently called on the centrist to make the names of those big donors public, something Macron said he could only request, not demand.
For the moment, however, none of this is shaking Macron’s supporters, not even controversial statements such as referring to France’s colonization of Algeria a “crime against humanity”.
“He’s intelligent, he learns very quickly from his mistakes, and he knows how to get good people around him,” Pierre Serman says in his defence.
The feelgood factor
A recent study of six European countries found France to be the most pessimistic about its future and the most wary of political institutions.
In this light, Sandra Kaplan, an architect who voted Socialist in says Macron’s upbeat vision of France’s future in a globalised world is welcome, however untrodden the path for getting there may be.
“He’s one of the only ones to be optimistic compared to all the others,” she says. “I think in France we have a big problem, it’s that everyone is negative: on the streets, on the subway you can hear that every day. I think it’s enough, we need to be positive again.”
En Marche says it will field candidates for all of France’s 577 seats in the parliamentary election that will follow the presidential one. Half will be chosen from civil society and half the seats will be reserved for women. They’ve already received more than 14,000 applications online, including Delphine Méric’s.
“I sent my file, my CV, my recommendations. Everything was online,” she says. “It’s really a new way of doing politics, not like in other political parties.” And gender parity, she adds, was “one of the reasons” she joined the march.