PARIS – The real winner of France's left-wing presidential primary may be a man who demonstrably shunned it: Emmanuel Macron.
The 39-year-old former investment banker and ex-economy minister with pro-free market, pro-European views has chosen not to take part in the Socialist primary. Instead, in recent days he has been drawing attention away from the campaign by traveling to the Mideast and pushing like-minded lawmakers to abandon the once-powerful, now-troubled Socialists and join his centrist movement.
Voters will choose Sunday between ex-Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls and Benoit Hamon, an ex-government member and hard-left candidate.
Whoever the winner is, polls show election prospects remain poor for the Socialist nominee in the April-May presidential race.
Meanwhile, Macron is ranked the third most popular choice for president, just behind the two top contenders, far-right leader Marine Le Pen and conservative candidate Francois Fillon.
Macron announced his movement "In Motion" (En Marche) will present one contender in every electoral district for the parliamentary elections in June. He issued a call for candidates, saying applications will be examined "quickly" on a first come, first served basis.
This move puts pressure on lawmakers, especially those on the center-left who would like to be associated with Macron's popularity — which now appears to be much higher than the Socialist party's.
Meanwhile, Macron is also seeking to boost his international stature.
In Lebanon this week, he discussed the Syrian conflict, terrorism and refugee issues with the country's highest authorities.
"Today one cannot be a French official, one cannot pretend to take a role in the Republic, without being aware of the diplomatic and military situations which are part of our world", Macron said in Beirut.
Earlier this month, he visited Germany where he addressed a conference on the European Union in English — a language he can speak fluently, a rare trait among French politicians.
He also visited the United States in December and met with Antonio Guterres before he became Secretary-General of the United Nations.
Macron may also benefit from the Socialist party's deep divisions inherited from French President Francois Hollande's unpopular, troubled term.
If Hamon wins the Socialist nomination on Sunday over the more center-leaning candidate, former prime minister Valls, voters with moderate views could choose to support Macron in the presidential race.
Lawmaker Richard Ferrand, a Socialist who joined "In Motion" last year, said both Socialist finalists "will not be able to reconcile and create a dynamic. That's why we say for a long time people with progressive ideas must gather around Emmanuel Macron".
Macron is a former investment banker with Rothschild. He became President Francois Hollande's economic adviser at the Elysee palace in 2012 and two years later, economy minister.
He passed pro-business measures that have been criticized by many on the left, saying they undermined France's famous workplace protections.
He left the government last year after he launched his own political movement. He was never a member of the Socialist Party, and has never held an elected office.
As a presidential candidate, he suggests loosening some of France' stringent labor rules — especially the 35-hour workweek — to boost job hiring. Younger workers could do more hours than older ones, he said.
Sylvie Marchal, 37, a member of Macron's movement, used to vote for a right-wing candidate in previous elections.
She praised the "youthful, credible" candidate and a "realistic speech" enriched by his experience both in a private company and in government.
"The fact that he is placing himself outside the (political) parties is attracting many people, because we see a limit to the two-party system" alternating between a traditional left and a radical right, Marchal told the AP. "We feel like he's trying to pick up on good ideas from both sides."