Why France’s Hollande holds on to ‘rebel’ minister Macron

Hollande

Hollande

Emmanuel Macron’s first political rally on Tuesday evening is widely viewed as a prelude to a run for the presidency – as well as a distraction from his job as economy minister. So why does his mentor, François Hollande, let him get away with it?

Harbouring a passion for nimble start-ups, geeky gadgets and all things digital sounds like a healthy hobby for a youthful economy minister bent on projecting an image of modernity – provided it doesn’t get in the way of his day job. Attending the Davos Forum earlier this year, Macron, 38, was so enthralled by a presentation of French tech companies’ latest innovations that he missed a scheduled meeting with India’s finance minister. Six months later, French media suggest the maverick minister has again tested Indian patience, cancelling a planned trip to New Delhi this week to indulge another whim: the French presidency.

Instead of promoting French savoir faire before Indian entrepreneurs, Macron will hold the first political rally of his new grassroots movement in Paris on Tuesday, following months of feverish speculation over a possible run for the presidency next year. His office has dismissed talk of the minister getting his priorities mixed up, telling French weekly L’Express “there was not enough time to organize a serious trip [to India]”. But his deputy and political rival Axelle Lemaire, the secretary of state in charge of the digital economy, promptly asked: “Is it normal that this kind of event should take precedence over government duties for which we are paid?”

Neither left, nor right

Macron, who belongs to no party and never stood for office, has come under a barrage of criticism from members of the ruling Socialists since he launched his trans-partisan movement in April. En Marche! (On the Move!) has the same initials as its founder (E.M.) and is widely seen as a prelude to a presidential bid. It aims to bring together moderates and reformists from the left and the right in a bid to “unblock” the eurozone’s second-largest economy, which is beset by high unemployment and stuttering growth.

A former investment banker, Macron has pushed through pro-business reforms and infuriated left-wingers with his repeated digs at France’s large public sector, its protective labour laws and the much-maligned 35-hour work week, which is reviled by business leaders but cherished by many French workers. Many in his inner circle are now pressing him to quit the government and run for France’s highest office, pointing to a string of surveys that suggest his patron Hollande is so unpopular he would fail to qualify for the second round of the presidential election next year.

Macron has consistently denied allegations of disloyalty, arguing that his views are shared by the Socialist president. Thomas Guénolé, a political analyst and head of the Vox Politica institute, says the economy minister is right to claim so. “Contrary to popular belief, Macron is no rebel in the government,” Guénolé told FRANCE 24, noting that Macron was the president’s closest economic advisor until Hollande handed him his ministerial portfolio following the ouster of the government’s left-wing faction. “In fact his views are perfectly coherent with the president’s policies.”

Guénolé said Macron embodied a typical political character, “that of the transgressive minister who carries new ideas – except he is neither transgressive nor particularly original in his thinking”. He argued that French journalists’ fixation with Macron meant they were failing to identify Hollande as the real transgressor, “who was elected on a left-wing platform but whose actual policy, on the economy, is no different to that of the right”.

Macron-mania

According to the political analyst, the one “fascinating” aspect of the Macron saga is the media’s obsession with France’s star minister, sometimes described as “Macron-mania”. The economy minister is simply “picking up old themes carried by people on the right and the left as far back as the 1970s and 1980s”, said Guénolé, though conceding a “singularity in the sincerity with which Macron expresses a liberal ideology that Hollande largely shares” but cannot confess to, for political reasons. “Of course his good looks also help to keep him on magazine covers,” he added.

Macron’s status as a plain-talking maverick has made him a darling of French media and a fixture of newspaper front pages, while the gossip press has dwelled on his marriage with his former high school teacher, Brigittte Trogneux, who is 20 years his senior. Opinion polls suggest he remains one of France’s most popular politicians at a time of widespread dissatisfaction with mainstream parties, which continue to haemorrhage support in favour of the far-right National Front. A survey by Harris interactive last Thursday found 32% of French people want Macron to run for the presidency, and 62% would rather he represent the left than the incumbent Hollande.

But while he enjoys the support and benevolence of business leaders and influential editors, Macron is still very much a lone ranger in a field dominated by deeply entrenched political parties. For the time being, he is staking his chances on his new grassroots movement. En Marche! claims to have gained 50,000 members since its launch three months ago. Around a third of them have been tasked with going door-to-door in towns and cities across France to collect suggestions from the public that will be used to draw up a political platform for reform. Macron has hired Liegy Muller Pons, a French start-up, to help sift through socio-economic data and elaborate a campaign strategy by the autumn.

Stuck with Hollande

Macron’s display of political ambition while still serving under Hollande has provoked unease and anger among the ruling Socialists. Prime Minister Manuel Valls – who once thrived as the government’s iconoclast until Macron pinched the role – has called on “all ministers to be completely devoted to their jobs”, in a clear reference to the economy minister. “It’s great to go door-to-door, let’s all go door-to-door; but not on our work hours!” Valls told Le Parisien daily last week. Bruno Le Roux, the head of the Socialists’ parliamentary group, openly warned Macron “not to overstep the mark”, while Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, a rising force in the party, scoffed at the minister’s rally on Tuesday, suggesting he “would do better looking after the country’s economy”. Others have questioned the ethical implications of Macron’s campaigning, referring to reports the minister had sought to raise funds for his own movement on a recent ministerial trip to London.

Meanwhile, France’s right-wing opposition has pointed at Hollande’s failure to discipline or fire his unruly minister as evidence of his weak leadership – while at the same time relishing Macron’s digs at the 35-hour week and other symbols of the left. Guénolé, the political analyst, said it would be hard for the French president to get rid of a popular minister with whom he has much in common. “Hollande’s last faithfuls are down to a handful, and that’s including those who would rather back Valls for the presidency,” he observed. “The incumbent simply cannot afford to lose any more.”

But Macron’s hands are also tied so long as Hollande remains a contender for 2017. “He cannot quit or he will come across as a traitor, so he will have to wait and see if he gets fired,” said Guénolé. “If he doesn’t [get fired], it will strengthen his credentials as the government’s iconoclast. If he does, then he will have remained faithful to his ideas. Either way he wins,” the analyst added, though cautioning that Macron may soon find he cannot command the same media attention once he is outside the government. Already, his ratings have been dented by a series of PR blunders, including an incident in which he was filmed telling a protester in a T-shirt that the best way to afford a suit is to work. “Media fashions come and go,” Guénolé warned. “The Macron collection is now in vogue, but the autumn/winter collection could look very different.”