Whiz-kid politician: Scorn and support for France's Socialist star

Economy Minister Macron has been on the cover of news magazines more often in the last six months than any other political figure, despite his thin record of achievements. Recently, he was pelted with eggs by demonstrators protesting against the gove
Economy Minister Macron has been on the cover of news magazines more often in the last six months than any other political figure, despite his thin record of achievements. Recently, he was pelted with eggs by demonstrators protesting against the government's "hire and fire" labour reforms.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

PARIS • Union militants have thrown eggs and vegetables at his head. News magazines compete to put his boyish face on their covers, one recently calling him "The Dynamiter." He himself has audaciously insinuated a comparison to one of France's patron saints and its 15th-century saviour, Joan of Arc.

Economy minister Emmanuel Macron, 38, whiz-kid technocrat and former Rothschild banker, has crystallised the hopes, fears and rage in the labour turmoil now unsettling France.

Bolstered by his showing in polls, he has started his own political movement, En Marche!, in what many here consider a campaign in all but name to explore whether to challenge President Francois Hollande as the Socialist candidate for president next year.

Mr Macron and his supporters are ambiguous on the question of whether he will run. But the bigger question may be whether he has the political skills to do for the Socialists what, say, Mr Bill Clinton did for the Democrats in the United States or Mr Tony Blair for Labour in Britain: update the party and move it to the centre to address the challenges of a global economy.

Given Mr Hollande's unpopularity, Mr Macron clearly has an opening, even if critics, especially on the left, deride him as being out of step with France's protective social model.

CONTRADICTIONS

There's a desire for change, but a fear of change, too. That's France.

MR PHILIPPE AGHION, a Harvard University economist who worked with Mr Emmanuel Macron on a reform commission in 2008, and has influenced him.

Behind his back, colleagues in France's Socialist government whisper about his vaulting ambition. Many of them see him as a capitalist interloper, a traitor to Socialist ideals and a threat to their traditional base among workers.

On Monday, it was militants from the far-left CGT union who greeted the young minister with eggs - one landed in his hair - and catcalls in the Communist-controlled Paris suburb of Montreuil. "Get lost!" they shouted at him.

The melee followed months of demonstrations in the streets by workers who have blocked oil refineries, nuclear plants, factories and the country's rail network.

The unrest has been set off by a government economic overhaul - an attempt, bold at first, to loosen France's ultratight labour laws, making hiring and firing easier and weakening the union's grip. As much as anyone's, it is Mr Macron's ideas that the demonstrators are against.

In addition, his banking background, elite education, button-down persona and technocratic aura - he angrily told a T-shirted demonstrator several weeks ago that "the best way to afford a suit is to work" - have made him the focus of much of the rage. ("I've been working since the age of 16, sir!" the demonstrator responded.)

France appears both terrified and absorbed by Mr Macron's ideas - making it easier to get and lose a job, to move to a new job, and to shake off the lifetime security of unbreakable contracts in search of something better.

"There's a desire for change, but a fear of change, too. That's France," said Harvard University economist Philippe Aghion who worked with Mr Macron on a reform commission in 2008, and has influenced him. The ideas generated by that commission weigh in the minister's thinking, Mr Aghion said.

The French media seemingly can't get enough of him. Intrigued by his combination of brains (he once served as an assistant to one of France's leading 20th-century philosophers, Paul Ricoeur) and heterodoxy, they have put him on the cover of news magazines more in the last six months than any other political figure, despite his thin record of accomplishment so far.

"The Macron Rocket - His Secret Plan For 2017" was one recent cover; "Macron: Why Not Him? How He Wants To Break The System" was another.

Even gossip magazines like Paris Match follow him, drawn by his unusual domestic arrangements: He is married to his high school teacher, 20 years his senior, from Amiens.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 13, 2016, with the headline 'Whiz-kid politician: Scorn and support for France's Socialist star'. Print Edition | Subscribe