Emmanuel Macron is stirring excitement and pushing boundaries in France. The economy minister is young and inexperienced, but that hasn't stopped him from challenging the hierarchy, Elizabeth Bryant reports from Paris.
Call him naive, deluded or exasperating, but 38-year-old Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs Minister Emmanuel Macron is capturing what has long eluded his boss, President Francois Hollande: high approval ratings and a sense among some voters of new political possibilities. Macron has never run for office, but in April he launched a political "movement," and he has not discounted an eventual presidential bid.
"Why does Macron please?" the journalist Christophe Barbier said in an online video editorial for L'Express magazine. "Because of his youth, his brilliance, but also because of his audacity ... and because he has the courage to announce truths, reforms that France has needed for a long time."
Never far from the media spotlight, Macron made fresh headlines in April, when he rolled out En Marche (On the Move), which he says is neither left-wing nor right-wing, and indeed not even a party, but "an effort to construct something different."
In snapshots, a video on the movement's website depicts a multiethnic and potentially dynamic France that has been frustrated and blocked, the narration goes, by a system of privilege and economic sclerosis. "Where is the liberty in this?" the narrator asks as images show the French flag. "Where is the equality?"
Macron has drawn comparisons to the US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, though the pair have little in common idealistically. The septuagenarian Vermont senator proudly asserts his democratic socialism, wants to increase some taxes to fund more government services and rails against Wall Street. Macron is a former banker who is trying to cut taxes, lighten bureaucracy and steer France's Socialists toward the center with such unsocialist suggestions as increasing the workweek from 35 hours and decreasing unemployment payments.
Perhaps the one thing they do have in common is that both are mavericks who have earned grassroots support - especially among young voters - largely because of their think-outside-of-the-box credentials. Like Sanders, who is an independent, Macron does not belong to any political party, though he was a Socialist until 2009.
"With Macron, you find the same refusal of doubletalk, the same disarming sincerity," the France Culture reporter Philippe Maniere said on a recent program, comparing the economy minister not just to Sanders but also the British politician Jeremy Corbyn, who has vowed to return the Labour Party to its left-wing roots. "For sure, he's less than 70, but he also breathes a sort of perfume of perpetual authenticity that seduces many."
According to French press, Macron's video clip even appears heavily inspired by the publicity materials used by the Sanders campaign. His mediamakers also reportedly used stock images of people from around the world to run alongside the French flag.
"The movement doesn't have a lot of money," Macron told the weekly Journal du Dimanche in response. "It's an entrepreneurial effort during the evenings and weekends."
That has not stopped Macron's rise in the polls. Surveys show him as the most popular member of Hollande's government and France's favored center-left choice for president.
Many in France don't just find Macron potentially presidential: They even says he's likable. An Odoxa survey found that one in four respondents wouldn't mind having a drink with him, and he was picked by one in three as the politician at whose home they would most like to spend the night.
The son of a doctor and a neurology professor, Macron studied philosophy before graduating from the elite Ecole Nationale d'Administration. He is married to his high school French teacher, who is 20 years his senior.
'Underestimated the power'
Macron "has all the qualities to be president," said Bernard Tapie, a businessman and France's city affairs minister for a few months from 1992 to 1993. Tapie warned, however, that Macron "has underestimated the power of the parties."
Indeed, Macron's popularity has not carried over to his workplace. His outspoken comments, stretching to issues well beyond his economy portfolio, have irritated and even angered fellow ministers.
"One cannot be a minister and at the same time prepare an agenda that's different from the president's," Prime Minister Manuel Valls told Society magazine in an interview published Friday in which he stressed the importance of being a "team player."
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve suggested that Macron should "work more and speak less" following Macron's warning that migrants stranded in Calais would head to Britain in the event of a Brexit.
Others have carefully balanced praise for Macron's enthusiasm with advice that he stick to his portfolio. Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian suggested that Macron "enjoyed being a bit of an iconoclast."
Hollande, too, appears increasingly annoyed by his former protege, who says he is loyal to the president but is not a "yes-man." Macron was conspicuously absent from an April 25 gathering of Hollande's allies to boost the president's image ahead of next year's elections.
"He could have enlarged my political base, but each time he speaks it's an attack against me." Hollande said, according to the weekly Le Canard Enchaine. "This cannot continue," he added.
Could Macron win?
Macron's legislation to make France more hospitable to business, voted in as the "Macron law," and new labor reform proposals have been watered down from their original versions after workers reacted with protests and strikes.
"It's hard to say if he's an effective minister, because almost everything he's proposed has been changed or scrapped by the government," said the political analyst Etienne Schweisguth, of the Sciences Po university in Paris. "France needs more economic liberalization. Had Macron been allowed to apply his program, one could imagine the French economy would be a lot better off."
Macron himself has not made his presidential ambitions completely clear. He said he would not challenge Hollande in 2017, though he has not counted out running in 2022. However, Hollande has staked his 2017 re-election bid on growing jobs, which hasn't happened yet. If Hollande decides not to run, the field would open up.
"What motivates me is outlining the future of my country - and the presidential election is a decisive moment," Macron told Germany's weekly Die Zeit in remarks reprinted in French media, though his statements offered few specifics.
A recent poll by France's BFMTV found that, under very specific circumstances, Macron might even win were he to run next year - and that Hollande would be beaten in the first round.
"There could be a place for a centrist in the next elections," Schweisguth said, painting a possible scenario in which Macron would run as a third-party candidate against unpopular rivals to the right and left. Though many politicians have attempted to campaign to the political center - the former Democratic Movement presidential candidate Francois Bayrou has staked his career to that - it is rare for such figures to come from the left, Schweisguth said.
"I would not say success is probable," Schweisguth said of Macron's presidential chances. "But it's not impossible."