Before the horrified gaze of its militants, the French Socialist party — which has been a major force in French politics since 1981, and forms the present government — is falling to pieces.

There are many reasons behind this catastrophe. They go back to 2005 and the dithering leadership of the then secretary-general, François Hollande, at a time when the party was dangerously divided after the referendum on a European constitution. And they continue up to 1 December last year, when President Hollande, after again dithering for months, announced on national television, in tears, that he had bowed to the inevitable — his own failure and unpopularity — and would not run for re-election. But the most significant reason for the Socialist implosion is the sudden arrival of a man from nowhere called Emmanuel Macron.

Macron, at 39, would normally be considered at least 15 years too young to mount a serious presidential challenge in France, but the most recent polls show him in third place, just behind the front-runner, the far-right Front National’s leader, Marine Le Pen, and François Fillon, the candidate of the conservative party, Les Républicains.

His rapid rise makes Macron a genuine original in French politics and his opponents do not know what to make of him. Unlike all other serious contenders, he has no visible record of political commitment. In 2004 he graduated from the National School of Administration (ENA) and joined the upper civil service. Then, in 2008, he paid €50,000 to buy himself out of his government contract and became an investment banker with Rothschild, where he was highly regarded and quickly made a small fortune. Then, in 2012, with the election of President Hollande, his career took another unexpected change of direction: he left Rothschild to become deputy secretary-general at the Elysée. When Manuel Valls became Hollande’s second prime minister in 2014, with instructions to deregulate the French economy, Macron was catapulted into the economics ministry.

Hollande and Valls congratulated themselves on an imaginative choice, and Macron set out to please Brussels by cutting France’s deficit while encouraging business activity. In 2015 he introduced la loi Macron, a measure designed to stimulate growth by abolishing public service monopolies and union restrictions on hours. This had to be forced through the National Assembly by decree, against the opposition of Socialist deputies, an unpopular move that consecrated Macron as the bête noire of the left.

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