LE TOUQUET-PARIS-PLAGE, France – From his teenage romance with a teacher to his recent ambition to become president, Emmanuel Macron often is described as unconventional and tenacious — traits that could make him France's next leader in an election marked by anti-establishment frustration.
The 39-year-old independent centrist was unknown to the French people until he became the country's economy minister three years ago. He never has held elected office. Yet through a combination of skill and timing, he now is considered the front-runner in the country's two-round presidential election on April 23 and May 7.
"He's a man who, when needed, can make decisions and who wants to make them," essayist-philosopher Olivier Mongin, a friend of Macron's for 18 years, said.
Neighbors and friends in Paris and in Le Touquet-Paris-Plage, a chic coastal town where the candidate spends weekends, describe a man with exceptional listening skills who has followed an untraditional trajectory in both his public and private lives.
Macron is married to a woman 24 years his senior, the same age difference between U.S. President Donald Trump and his wife, Melania. The possible future first couple met when he was a student at the high school where she was a teacher.
Then known as Brigitte Auziere, a married mother of three children, she was supervising the drama club. Macron, a literature lover, was a member. Macron moved to Paris for his last year of high school, but promised to marry Brigitte.
They've been together ever since. She eventually moved to the French capital to join Macron and divorced. The couple finally married in 2007. Brigitte Macron is now campaigning by his side, as is one of her daughters, Tiphaine Auziere.
"He was always interested in public affairs, civic life, but I never heard him say he wanted to be president," step-daughter Auziere said. "However, I always saw him being involved..., saying there are some things that we should change in society in order to tackle injustices."
Mongin told The Associated Press that Macron's political determination also comes from his singular personal life.
"He is someone who took risks in his life," Mongin said about Macron's decision to live out his love story with an older woman.
"His parents threw him out, he slammed the door. There is a life experience here, there is something a bit hard," Mongin added.
Macron has an impressive curriculum vitae. He studied philosophy, was awarded for his skills as a pianist, attended France's elite Ecole Nationale d'Administration for graduate school and worked at Rothschild as a successful investment banker.
French people discovered Macron when he was nominated economy minister in August 2014, after two years as a top adviser to Socialist President Francois Hollande.
As a minister, he rapidly became a love-it-or-hate-it topic during family meals around the country.
A package of economic measures to allow more stores to open Sundays and open up regulated sectors of the economy, known as the Macron law, drove tens of thousands of people to the streets for months of protests across France.
Outspoken, he fierily advocated for pro-free market policies even as many colleagues from the governing Socialists accused him of destroying worker protections.
Yet he comes from a town with working-class roots — Amiens in northern France, where he was born, grew up, and met Brigitte.
Observers suggested Macron played a double game when he quit the Socialist government last year without telling Hollande his true ambitions. He launched his presidential bid in November before the unpopular president had announced whether he would seek re-election.
Macron's entry into the race is viewed as one of the main factors behind Hollande's decision not to pursue a second term.
"What seduced a lot of people -and I think he is not a seducer- it's his capacity of putting forward an argument, taking time to speak, taking time to ponder," Mongin said.
For two decades Macron has divided his time between Paris, were he had his professional life, and weekends in Le Touquet-Paris-Plage, an elegant seaside resort.
With roughly 4,000 permanent inhabitants — and several thousand more in summertime — the town is a tranquil place most of the year. Families recall socializing with the Macrons in the summer, drinking an aperitif on the beach while children played together.
Gregoire Campion, 62, has known the couple for about 20 years. He talks about Macron as "Manu, a cool guy, open-minded."
"I thought it was a wonderful (love) story. On top of that he was very well-accepted by Brigitte's children," Campion said. "It's a proof of commitment, the same way as he commits himself for France."
Until recent months, Macron could be seen walking to the tennis club, taking out the garbage, shopping with his wife.
Jacques Guilbert, a former member of the Socialist Party in his 60s, joined Macron's movement, En Marche! (In Motion!), created a year ago.
He said he was convinced by his "friendly" and "simple" style.
"When you are facing him, he looks you in the eyes, and he listens to you without interrupting. And he answers you when you have finished," he explained.
Auziere said family is important to her step-father. Macron urged her and her longtime partner to get married, especially when their second child was born in 2015.
At the time, they told him, laughing: "'No, we will (get married) when you are president of the Republic.' And he replied: 'I dare you!' So now we look silly if it ever happens!" she said.
The whole family plans to unite at a big rally in Paris on Monday — something common in U.S. campaigns but rare in France. Brigitte Macron doesn't hesitate to appear by her husband's side in front of the cameras.
Catherine Gaschka contributed from Paris