France’s ‘maverick’ Macron kicks off presidential campaign
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France’s former economy minister Emmanuel Macron put his campaign for the 2017 presidential election into high gear at a vast rally in Paris on Saturday, promising a “revolution” that will “pull France into the 21st century”.
Organisers said the event at the Porte de Versailles exhibition centre in southern Paris had attracted at least 15,000 people, eclipsing last weekend's lacklustre gathering by the ruling Socialists when party grandees struggled to re-energise the faithful at a rally attended by a mere 2,500 supporters.
The huge crowd of supporters, most of them in their 20s and 30s, cheered ecstatically as Macron promised an end to France’s “three decades of chronic unemployment”.
Macron has said that he is “neither on the left nor on the right” and that his policies are a “progressive” appeal to voters of all stripes who want France to be open, pro-European, market-friendly and, above all, not conservative.
Declaring himself the “Candidate for Jobs”, Macron said his top priority was “liberating people through access to employment” and promising to further reduce France’s high employment taxes.
He also promised to eliminate compulsory social security charges for unemployment and health insurance that come out of employees’ pay cheques, which would add up to roughly €500 a year for workers on the minimum wage. Less revolutionary was his vow to keep the 35-hour working week.
The 38-year-old former investment banker was once a protégé of French President François Hollande, who he served as economy minister until resigning to launch his own political movement “En Marche!” (“On the Move!”) in July.
Macron was responsible for crafting many of Hollande’s business-friendly policies, and his efforts to deregulate France’s labour market have earned him praise from right-wing circles but lamentations from the left. However, he is likely to clash with conservatives over the hot-button issues of immigration, security and religion, which are likely to dominate the debate in the run-up to the April 2017 election.
‘Europe is our shield’
Macron got his biggest cheers when he spoke of the “European dream”, a subject that he said "the main candidates are willfully ignoring".
Supporters exploded with delight, waving EU flags, when Macron told them the European Union was “the only thing that will truly protect us from the threat of globalisation”.
“Who can protect our environment from the likes of Monsanto and Bayer?” he asked, referring to two multinational corporations that want to introduce genetically modified crops into European agriculture.
“Only the EU can protect us. It is our identity, it is our shield, it is what stops us falling into the barbarity of nationalism,” he said, in a direct swipe at far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who polls predict will advance to the second round of next year’s election.
Macron, married to his former high school teacher who is 24 years his senior, has never held elected office. But his position as an independent coming from outside traditional political spheres could give him a unique appeal.
“He’s trying to create momentum outside the traditional parties, creating his own political organisation with people from different backgrounds,” Marc Ivaldi, a scholar at the Toulouse School of Economics, told FRANCE 24 in an interview in November. “He is a maverick in the sense that he is the new guy entering the market and competing against the incumbents.”
His candidacy is certainly a bitter pill for the Socialists, in particular for former premier Manuel Valls, who is seen as the likely winner of the January primary that will determine which leftist candidate will vie for the presidency.
Macron has refused all pleas from Valls to join the left’s attempt to form a united front. Valls himself resigned as prime minister this week to launch his own presidential bid.
Polls put him in third place
According to the polls there is little chance that the left-wing candidate who wins in January will even make it to the second round of next year’s presidential election.
Opinion polls put Macron in third place, with 13.5 percent of likely voters ahead of Valls’ 10 percent. Both candidates are well behind centre-right Les Républicains candidate François Fillon and Le Pen, who are expected to face off in the second round with polls predicting an eventual victory for Fillon.
Pollsters, however, have had a bad year, failing to predict the two political upsets of 2016 – the British Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s US election victory, whose campaigns tapped into an underlying anti-establishment sentiment.
The polls were also wildly out of tune ahead of the right-wing primary in November, which just a month before had Fillon trailing in third place with just 11 percent of the vote.