En marche.

Photographer: Balint Porneczi/Bloomberg

France's Rising Political Star Is Hard to Pin Down

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg View. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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Two years ago French President Francois Hollande plucked a young adviser from obscurity and made him economy minister. Emmanuel Macron, who resigned that post on Tuesday, is now spoken of as a potential candidate for president himself.

Though his chances of landing in the Elysee anytime soon are slim to none, Macron has become a figure of fascination for good reason: France is a country that devours those who seek to change its politics. And yet it is also a country that, as Macron likes to note, is ripe for change.

With an homage to Joan of Arc and speeches peppered with references to philosophers, Macron is daring French voters to be different. Young, charismatic, a skilled pianist and orator, he's been called a Mozart of the Elysee and likened to John F. Kennedy. A French Tony Blair may be a closer approximation. Like Blair, the 38-year-old Macron melds praise for market reforms with appeals for social unity. But the analogy falls short; Blair was a paid-up member of the Labour Party he went on to lead, while Macron is not a party man.

It's always been easier to talk about what Macron is not than what he is. He is not a Socialist Party member, not a traditional left-wing politician and, at the moment, not even a candidate for the 2017 presidential election. In a country where serious politicians hail from either left or right, he shuns both labels. In a country where politicians are expected to pay their dues, he has never held elected office and his stint as a civil servant was brief. A former banker (Rothschilds) he is viewed with suspicion by many on the left of the Socialist government he served. 

But ever since he launched his En Marche (usually translated as On the Move or Forward) movement in April, the speculation has been that he will soon announce his bid for the presidency. Far from discouraging the talk, he has invited it, promising a Paris meeting hall packed with his followers earlier this year to "lead them to victory in 2017." In his resignation, he said he wants to work on proposals "to transform France." He's nothing if not ambitious.

If the Elysee is his goal, as many assume, popularity alone won't be enough to get him there. En Marche is estimated to have around 60,000 followers; compared to the army of more than 200,000 that the Republicans, France's main party of the right, can call upon to help them win votes. While he's reported to have been raising money in the U.K., where many well-heeled French live, it's unlikely that he has the kind of war chest that would enable him to spend up to the 22 million euros ($24.5 million) permitted for a presidential campaign.

Even if he manages to amass volunteers and cash, it's not clear what political ground Macron will occupy. The former president and 2017 candidate Nicolas Sarkozy has increasingly moved to the burkini-banning right, hoping to steal votes from the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. Her National Front party took 28 percent of the vote in the first round of local elections last year, its highest showing ever. Polls suggest that Le Pen will make it to the second round of voting in 2017. 

The left, too, is returning to familiar turf. With President Hollande barely registering a pulse in opinion polls, left-wing politicians, including former industry minister Arnaud Montebourg, are falling over themselves to reclaim French socialism from what they see as Hollande's diluted version.

Macron has declared that he is not a socialist, but hasn't said where he sees himself. To his detractors, he's a political chameleon. He encouraged Hollande to abandon the 75 percent super-tax on the wealthy (Macron famously said it would turn France into "Cuba without the sun"), but his own record as a pro-market reformer is patchy. His name is attached to a law that was supposed to herald an end to France's 35-hour workweek but which got so watered down that the historian Francois Huguenin wrote in Le Figaro, "Its timidity betrayed any pretense of reform."

I suspect the view of Macron as an opportunist is too harsh given the limited powers at his disposal and the obduracy of the French state. He has often spoken up for entrepreneurs (he dabbled in a tech startup himself once), whom he has noted work harder than most salaried employees. Given real power, he is more likely than any of the alternatives to challenge the status quo.

Past attempts at doing so, it must be said, haven't gone well. The former Socialist politicians Michel Rocard and Dominque Strauss-Kahn were pilloried in the 1990s for trying to introduce limited market reforms. In his maverick style, Macron reminds me more of another doomed reformer, Alain Madelin, an outspoken minister in successive governments of the right in the 1980s and 1990s. His untiring calls for rolling back state intervention in the economy were much ridiculed, and by the time he was a candidate in the 2002 French presidential election, pretty much no one was listening anymore. He took less than 4 percent of the vote.

If France wasn't ready for reform in the 1990s, it may be more receptive now. Unemployment has been over 9 percent for seven years, while growth has been sluggish. But while Macron's messages of economic reform may resonate, it's also a difficult moment to be a voice of reason. Voters cite terrorism, immigration, labor laws and social stability as the issues that will most influence their choice. Candidates who pander to fears or promise to protect benefits may fare well.

Macron's rise to prominence surely says much about his political talent. But it also says a lot about the level of public dissatisfaction with the status quo and the need for fresh voices. Where that discontent will go in nine months is hard to say. Reaching the Elysee seems a huge stretch for Macron, at least in 2020. It's generally safer in France to bet against change. Except every once in a long while, the unexpected happens.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net