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Macron revolts against French party system, but short on new ideas


Former French economy minister Emmanuel Macron has often been tacked as a maverick politician, unchained to party allegiances or ideologies. But as he launches his presidential campaign, experts question the novelty of his views.


Macron, 38, on Wednesday announced he would be a candidate in France’s 2017 presidential elections, confirming his widely outed ambition to lead his “En Marche” (On the Move!) movement all the way to the Elysée Palace next spring.

He quit as President François Hollande’s economy minister earlier this year, launching his own political organisation (he rejects the word “party”), and earning acclaim from the French and international press as a young iconoclast eager to cure the country’s economic illnesses.

Declaring his candidacy on Wednesday, Macron tried to reinforce his image as a maverick. “I want to bring France into the 21st century, I want my country to hold its head high, and to do so it must re-join its millennial history,” he said in a speech in the Parisian suburb of Bobigny.

“We are living in an era of great transformations, and we will not be able to rise to its challenge by turning to the same men and the same ideas,” he insisted.

Analysts say Macron’s lack of an established party or a grassroots campaign structure mean he will now face an uphill battle to conquer the presidency. Yet opinion polls show he remains a popular candidate, and he could prove to be France’s contribution to the recent string of political upsets around the world.

Turning on Hollande

A former banker, Macron is credited with crafting Hollande’s business-friendly policies, first as the Socialist president’s top economic adviser and then his economy minister. His efforts to deregulate France’s labour market have earned him praise from right-wing circles, but he is likely to clash with conservatives over the hot-button issues of immigration, security and religion.

In other countries he would quickly be called a centrist, but France has a history of centrist political leaders who tend to align themselves with mainstream conservatives. This, at least for now, is not Macron's case. He himself says that “En Marche!” is neither on the left nor the right of the political spectrum.

Experts say the fact that Macron has no political affiliation and has never run for elected office does indeed make him refreshingly different.

“He’s trying to create momentum outside the traditional parties, creating his own political organisation with people from different backgrounds,” said Marc Ivaldi, a scholar at the Toulouse School of Economics. “He is a maverick in the sense that he is the new guy entering the market and competing against the incumbents.”

Frédéric Sawicki, a political scientist at Paris 1 university and an expert on France’s Socialist Party, agreed that Macron’s rise is unprecedented in recent history. “We can definitely say he rebelled against François Hollande, against the man who brought him into politics,” he noted.

Hollande has seen his job-approval ratings sink amid a virtually stagnant economy and very high unemployment, and has kept France in suspense about his intentions to seek a second term in office. Support among left-wing voters has withered, especially as the president turned to Macron and pro-market Prime Minister Manuel Valls for leadership.

Macron has refused to participate in the Socialist Party’s presidential primaries – which may include either Hollande or Valls – and his presidential ambitions now depend, at least partly, in upstaging his political mentor.

Dominant theory

While Macron has made a raucous entry into French politics, Sawicki nevertheless questioned the “rebelliousness” of the candidate’s ideas.

“He has rebelled against the political parties, but when it comes to his ideas, he is a conformist,” the politics expert said. “He has succeeded in painting himself as someone different, but his ideas are completely in line with the thinking of the economic establishment. He is repeating what many French bureaucrats have been urging for years.”

As economy minister, Macron pushed through tax breaks for businesses and championed a labour reform that makes it easier for bosses to hire and let go of workers. Fearing the changes would be rejected by lawmakers, the government used a legal manoeuvre to force through the labour reforms without a parliamentary debate or a vote in July.

“He has defended deregulating the economy, allowing work on Sundays and allowing employers to fire more easily, but these are not new ideas, even within the Socialist Party,” Sawicki noted, adding, “In 2007, Ségolène Royal talked about introducing more flexibility into the labour market when she ran for president.”

“So I am not sure what’s so innovative about [Macron],” he added.

Economist Marc Ivaldi said it was premature to assess how ground-breaking Macron’s proposals were, saying the presidential candidate has been very careful to reveal any. In an interview with French magazine Les Obs last week, Macron hinted at reforms that would allow employees to have more say in how many hours they work per week and at what age they retire. He also suggested expanding unemployment benefits.

“From what we have seen so far, they are not ideas that we can really call innovative. They have been on the table for a long time,” Ivaldi said. “What would be really different is implementing them in France, given the conservatism on both the left and right.”

Macron has welcomed the "maverick" label, and in an election that lacks new faces and ideas could benefit from the stamp. His challenge now is to prove it.

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