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“It was time I set sail on a lighter vessel,” the 38-year-old told reporters as he left the economy ministry on Wednesday, indulging in a maritime metaphor to describe his departure from a government weighed down by record-low ratings. French editorialists soon followed suit, pondering whether PresidentFrançois Hollande’s former protégé would end up “mutineer or castaway” after he “raised the anchor” and “jumped off the Titanic”.
Macron, who belongs to no party and never stood for office, has faced 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 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.
Many in Macron’s inner circle had long pressed him to quit the government and run for France’s highest office, pointing to a string of surveys that suggest his patron Hollande – who fostered Macron’s rise from obscure advisor to star minister – is so unpopular he would fail to qualify for a presidential run-off next year.
The youthful former investment banker is yet to declare a formal bid for the April-May election. Doing so on Tuesday, as he announced his resignation from Hollande’s government, would have exposed him to the stain of Brutus: that of the ungrateful protégé who backstabs his mentor. It would also have ended the feverish speculation that the Macron bandwagon feeds on.
Macron’s status as a plain-talking maverick has made him a darling of the 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.
Adélaïde Zulfikarpasic of polling institute said disillusionment with the French political establishment has created an auspicious environment for Macron, who has cultivated his image as an “outsider” and “transgressor” in an unpopular cabinet. However, she told FRANCE 24, “he may soon find he cannot command the same media attention once he is outside the government”. More importantly, she added, Macron remains a man without a party.
Rebel without a party
While he enjoys the support and benevolence of business leaders and influential editors, the photogenic former minister 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 60,000 members since its launch four months ago – though membership is free of charge. Volunteers 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 Liegey Muller Pons, a French start-up, to help sift through socio-economic data and devise a campaign strategy by the autumn.
Thomas Guénolé, a political analyst and head of the Vox Politica institute, said Macron’s business links and wealthy patrons meant he would have no problem funding a bid for the presidency. But he dismissed the former minister’s chances as null, describing the Macron bubble as “a media fad and an electoral non-story”.
The analyst rejected the notion that Macron was being hindered by a stultified political system, noting that it was his choice not to take part in primaries to designate candidates for the presidential election. Both the Socialists and their chief rivals, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s Les Républicains[formerly known as the UMP], will hold votes in the coming months. Last June, the former minister said he had “no interest” in taking part, writing off the contests as “proof of weak leadership”.
Neither left, nor right
Guénolé was equally sceptical regarding the former minister’s ability to build a successful campaign platform. While Macron’s views – blending liberal ideas on both social issues and the economy – may be popular with an influential segment of the press, Guénolé estimated that it would only garner support from approximately 5 percent of the electorate. Nor, he added, is the disquiet generated by widening inequalities and the increasing number of short-term contract jobs, “favourable to a candidate who preaches further deregulation of the economy”.
During his time in office, 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 working week, which is reviled by business leaders but cherished by many French workers. On Wednesday, an Ifop poll carried out in the wake of Macron’s resignation suggested support for his candidacy is much higher among right-wing voters than those on the left.
“Would they [the right-wing supporters] vote for him? Nothing is less sure,” said Ifop’s deputy chief Frédéric Dabi. Macron remains untested on security and the fight against terrorism, while his liberal views on immigration and social issues are a world apart from those of many conservative voters.
“To win an election you need a powerful party and a persuasive message, but Macron has neither,” Guénolé concluded. “In fact his is a textbook case of a candidate with no chance of winning.”