Reformist to run for president in France

As economy minister, Mr Emmanuel Macron sought to relax France's restrictive labour rules, and became the darling of the business community.
As economy minister, Mr Emmanuel Macron sought to relax France's restrictive labour rules, and became the darling of the business community.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Popular politician resigns as economy minister, dealing heavy blow to re-election chances of his mentor Hollande

Mr Emmanuel Macron, France's reformist Economy Minister and one of the country's most popular politicians, has ended months of speculation by announcing his immediate resignation from the government, in preparation for a bid to become the country's next president in elections scheduled for April.

The resignation is a blow to the re-election chances of Socialist President Francois Hollande, who used to be Mr Macron's political mentor. But it may be good news for former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who is fighting to regain the top office for the centre-right Republican opposition movement in a campaign in which nationalism, rather than the state of the economy, is the main theme.

A banker by training, the 38-year-old Mr Macron was always an odd member in the centre-left Socialist government. He had no time for market regulation, and sought instead to relax France's restrictive labour rules which put off employers from hiring more workers, thereby maintaining the country's chronically high unemployment rate.

This made Mr Macron the darling of the business community, but did nothing for the popularity of Mr Hollande who, according to the latest opinion polls, has the support of only 16 per cent of the electorate and may suffer the ultimate humiliation of even failing to secure the nomination of his own Socialist party for the April elections.

However, Mr Macron cannot replace the President as party leader, for the outgoing economic minister is disliked by ordinary Socialists. So he has opted to contest the presidency as an independent, anti-establishment candidate. "I have touched the limits of our (political) system, the last-minute compromises, and its imperfect solutions," he said in his resignation speech.

In theory, Mr Macron's strategy is shrewd. France's voters are tired of old politicians and could be attracted to an outsider like him. Mr Macron also hopes to get generous donations from businessmen, who have long dreamt of having an economic expert in the Elysee presidential palace.

Besides, Mr Macron does not need to charm everyone; under France's two-round electoral system, all he needs to do is to get into the second round of voting in which only the two runner-up presidential candidates can compete.

One of these two is almost certain to be Ms Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, who tops the popularity stakes. But the consensus in France is that whoever stands against her in the second round would win, for that person would attract the support of all voters determined to stop Ms Le Pen.

Still, it would be a tall order for Mr Macron, who is only now beginning to organise a nationwide campaign, to win against established political parties. The assumption among political observers is that he will merely split the government vote, to the benefit of Mr Sarkozy, who is staging a comeback.

Mr Sarkozy has to contend with Mr Alain Juppe, a former prime minister, who is more popular with the party's rank and file. But Mr Sarkozy is a formidable campaigner, and after the spate of Islamist attacks that killed 236 people over the past 18 months, the chief preoccupation in France is immigration and, more specifically, the rights and obligations of Muslims. Both play into Mr Sarkozy's strong nationalist credentials.

So, while Mr Juppe argued in speeches this week about the need to integrate Muslims into society rather than forcing them to assimilate, Mr Sarkozy delighted Republican supporters with fiery warnings about the "threat" migrants allegedly pose to France's "identity".

Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who now that Mr Macron has quit no longer hides his aim to win the ruling Socialist party's nomination for the presidency, has also picked up the nationalist theme.

He has vowed that defending the rights of women "not to be veiled" will be his party's historic battle.

Mr Valls invoked the image of Marianne, the mythical woman representing the French republic, who is sometimes featured in statues as bare-breasted. However, he was criticised for saying the topless Marianne was a symbol of French freedom.

Much of this is historic nonsense. Marianne is not a symbol for female liberation: France gave women voting rights only in 1944, much later than elsewhere in Europe. Nor was she always topless: The initial revolutionary depictions of the woman had her fully clad and armoured.

Still, for French politicians keen to ignore the appeal for a debate about the country's economy, which Mr Macron now urges, nothing serves better than appeals to historic myths. And that applies across France's political spectrum.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 01, 2016, with the headline 'Reformist to run for president in France'. Print Edition | Subscribe