A day after stepping down as France’s economy minister, 38-year-old Emmanuel Macron hasn’t said whether he’ll be running for president, but analysts and potential rivals are sparing no time evaluating his chances.
Emmanuel Macron's swift transformation from insubordinate minister into potential presidential hopeful injects a fresh and volatile dimension into France's election season so far shaped by an ageing and unexciting lineup.
To be sure, the 38-year-old former investment banker, who resigned Tuesday as France's economy minister, has no experience running for office, still-scanty political backing and the challenge of raising funds and the 500 signatures needed from elected officials to get on the ballot - and therefore little chance of winning presidential elections next spring.
Yet polls consistently show him to be among France's most popular politicians. His "En Marche!" ("Forward!") movement, created in April, has galvanized an enthusiastic, if narrow, support base from a deeply disaffected electorate, tired of what it considers to be the same old faces and promises.
"Macron incarnates real aspirations of French who are sick of the cleavage between the left and the right," says Etienne Schweisguth of Sciences Po University in Paris. "If he succeeds in allying part of the electorate of the left and right, that could translate into many votes."
A number of analysts believe whoever wins the presidency next year will inevitably face a second-round runoff against far-right politician Marine Le Pen, who is polling strongly on an anti-immigrant, law-and-order platform, especially following a wave of terrorist attacks in France.
At a press conference in Paris shortly after announcing his resignation, Macron shied away from announcing his candidacy, saying only he would announce his proposals for changing the country by the end of September.
"I am determined to do everything so that our values, our ideas, our action can transform France as of next year," he said.
For France's deeply unpopular president, Francois Hollande, Macron's departure removes a long-nagging thorn, but also narrows his support base. A former Hollande protege, Macron has long presented himself as a rebel, loathe to toe the line and quick to offer his own opinions, which often conflicted with those of his ex-boss.
Despite coming in as a reformer, he failed to tilt Hollande's leftist government more to the center, or push through many of his free market ideas during his two years in office. His labor and business reforms were ultimately watered down under pressure from unions and the far left.
Hollande loyalists spared no time in criticizing Macron's departure, with Socialist Party head Jean-Christophe Cambadelis describing the move as an "impeachment attempt."
"It's to prevent the president from running," he told LCI radio.
Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem described Macron's moves in a separate radio interview as "very dubious."
"How could he be more useful to French and to the general public interest than acting within the government?" she asked.
"He's a threat to Hollande," says analyst Schweisguth of Macron's potential candidacy - even if he runs, as seems likely, as an independent. "His simple presence will mean that in opinion polls he risks taking the votes from Hollande."
The French president has not yet announced whether he will run for a second term, pegging any reelection bid on his ability to turn around France's sluggish economy and grow jobs. Many analysts don't expect he will announce his decision until the end of the year, and - with Hollande's popularity ratings stuck in the teens - Schweisguth personally doubts whether he will run at all.
But for Philippe Moreau Defarges, of the French Institute of International Relations, Macron's departure from Hollande's cabinet could be good news for the embattled president, by anchoring his leftist support base. Finance Minister Michel Sapin, a longtime Hollande loyalist, has taken over Macron's job.
"He's a very good tactician and in some ways the resignation of Mr. Macron can have a positive side," Moreau Defarges says of Hollande. "Because it can ensure Mr. Hollande remains a man of the left."
According to some analysts the former economy minister and political upstart may also present a worry for the right, particularly for longtime center-right politician Alain Juppe, a former prime minister familiar to the French public who is scoring strongly in polls. Macron's proposals appear to be resonating strongly with some of the same electorate backing Juppe - elderly voters who support free market economic policies. At least in the medium term, "it's not good news for Alain Juppe," Jerome Fourquet from the IFOP polling institute told Le Monde newspaper.
For his part another rightist candidate, former president Nicolas Sarkozy, has viewed Macron's resignation with skepticism. "Why now?" he asked. "What justifies this extra mess?"
But analyst Bruno Cautres of the Paris-based Centre for Political Research, believes Macron will have a hard time capturing enough support either from the right or the left to make him a serious candidate. And the center, he believes, will be locked up by other candidates, possibly including veteran presidential hopeful Francois Bayrou, of the Democratic Movement party.
"It's hard to see where Emmanuel Macron will find his voters," Cautres said.
To be sure, Macron faces other big challenges should he choose to run.
"He's an outsider, he's a maverick, he's a very interesting guy," says analyst Moreau Defarges, who also believes Macron's presidential chances are slim. "But he's never been elected. And if you're running for political office, you need a political machine."
Macron's En Marche! movement claims 60,000 supporters, but so far few prominent politicians are backing him. He will also need a campaign war chest.
Still Schweisguth believes that could change. "Political support varies, and chances increase when the chance of a victory appear to enlarge," he said.
On Wednesday, millionaire and supermarket baron Henry Hermand, a long-time advisor to prominent leftist politicians in the past, threw his support behind Macron, telling French radio that a "political committee" would be formed in the coming weeks.
"I don't say it is probable," Schweisguth said of Macron pulling off a win. "But what many people didn't take seriously not so long ago is now a possible hypothesis that should now be taken seriously."
Analyst Cautres believes Macron's best strategy is not to run at all.
"Where he has a future is as affirming himself as the embodiment of a France that globalizes, a France that modernises, but right now that has a limited support base," he said. If Macron runs and does badly, his said, his popularity may quickly erode.
"He has a future, that's certain," Cautres said. "But if he runs, his future is less certain."