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FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech during the AMF congress, the annual meeting of French mayors, in Paris, France, November 23, 2017. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/File Photo

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By Luke Baker

PARIS (Reuters) - As he looks back on a momentous year, French President Emmanuel Macron might be tempted to have an extra glass of champagne this holiday season, and not just because he turned 40 on Thursday.

A year ago, his newly created En Marche movement was only just starting to gain traction, with the candidate inching ahead of his main centre-right rival Francois Fillon in the polls.

But he still faced a full-throated challenge from far-right leader Marine Le Pen, and the idea of a 30-something former economy minister with no party affiliation rising to become president of the republic appeared far-fetched.

A year on, and a few wobbles aside, Macron looks to be sitting pretty: he's up in the polls again, the opposition is largely in disarray, the economy is picking up, and business and consumer confidence are strong.

With German Chancellor Angela Merkel, 63, bogged down in draining coalition negotiations, Britain's Theresa May, 61, battling to make Brexit work while holding her divided government together, and President Donald Trump, 71, taking the United States in often unpredictable directions, Macron is arguably the most stable and reliable leader in the West.

In the past few weeks alone he has hosted a global climate summit, convened Middle East and African leaders to tackle Islamist militancy in the Sahel, brokered the return of Prime Minister Saad Hariri to Lebanon from Saudi Arabia, and been at the forefront of discussions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the status of Jerusalem.

Next month he will visit China for four days, and in the coming months he is expected to become the first French leader to visit Tehran since 1971 -- six years before his birth.

In Europe, he is credited with standing up to the wave of nationalist populism and unabashedly backing EU integration at a time when such ideas have become a dirty word in many capitals.

"Macron's unexpected performance underscores that harsh anti-EU populism is not always a winning strategy," Erik Brattenberg, director of the Europe Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote this week.

CHALLENGES AHEAD

So as Macron prepares to wind down a little bit at the end of the year, what are the risks?

One of the former investment banker's shortcomings has been a tendency to use dismissive, even denigrating, language that has at times made him appear arrogant. Opponents have dubbed him "president of the rich", a label that's proving hard to shake.

Referring to those who oppose his economic reforms as "slackers" and suggesting that protesting workers should stop "kicking up a bloody mess" was ready fuel for the centre-left opposition and dented his popularity.

He faces a challenge to keep his ambitious agenda on track. While he has pushed through changes to the labour rules with minimal unrest, he still needs to secure an overhaul to the pensions and unemployment benefit systems.

In Europe, his grand plans for a separate budget for the euro zone have been stymied in large part by Germany's post-electoral impasse, and his talk of pan-European lists to run in next year's elections to the European Parliament is unsettling parties and leaders across the continent.

He also cannot bank on the opposition being disordered forever. The centre-right Republicans party has now elected Laurent Wauquiez, a 42-year-old in the Macron mould, as its leader, and the far-left La France Insoumise keeps promising to put hundreds of thousands of protesters on the streets.

What's certain is that 2018 is unlikely to be uneventful.

(Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Richard Lough and Ralph Boulton)

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Reuters