If Marion Marechal-Le Pen is the most interesting politician in France, then Emmanuel Macron is almost certainly the runner-up. France's infuriatingly young Finance Minister is riding high in the polls, and talk of his running for president is only heating up.
Previously an aide to French President François Hollande, he was appointed as Finance Minister with a mandate to, in a word, liberalize France's economy in a desperate bid to boost employment and rescue Hollande's abysmal poll ratings. Macron then embarked on a frenzied program of free market reforms, in a country that is one of the most anti-market in the developed world, and which voted in a Socialist president and parliament three years ago.
Macron has been unashamed. Instead of keeping his head down, he keeps making remarks in the press almost designed to rile up his own side. He has called for reforming civil service rules, a longstanding demand of the right and anathema to the left. According to reports, he said privately that Hollande's plan to raise taxes on the rich would make France "like Cuba but without the sun," and almost resigned as presidential advisor because he felt a pensions reform plan didn't cut enough. He talks about being part of the "reality-based left" and of being a "left-wing supply-sider."
Taking the troll game to 11, Macron even once mused that perhaps France should overturn the French Revolution and establish a constitutional monarchy.
His economic philosophy seems to come close to what the economist Ed Glaeser called "small government egalitarianism": the idea that the government should leave the economy alone and let most things go unregulated, but redistribute money to buffet the impact of economic shocks on everyday people. This is the exact opposite of the traditional French approach, where it is thought legitimate for the government to direct economic activity and where the safety net is created as much by protected legal statuses, such as tough work rules that discourage employment, as by redistribution.
This game has boosted his poll ratings. Unsurprisingly, he is the most popular left-wing politician on the right (I, a right-winger, would very seriously consider voting for him over most of the sorry slate that France's Republican Party is putting forward). But he also has some popularity on the left, where a significant minority, while retaining generally progressive commitments, still understand that free markets are necessary to fund a progressive welfare state.
Most importantly, he has delivered results. Most of the reforms he is implementing have been talked about by both sides for a very long time — sometimes, decades — and never delivered. In a country where reform often seems politically impossible, that is a key asset.
All of this has raised talk that Macron, a nobody two years ago, might run for president in the next election in 2017. The logic is simple: He has a record, he is the only socialist politician who is not blisteringly unpopular — and he might be the only person who can stop the far-right Front National's Marine Le Pen.
As France's recent elections have shown, the FN is riding high. In the event where Marine Le Pen would end up in a presidential run-off against France's highly unpopular François Hollande, she would probably not win, but there is a strong possibility that she would get a game-changing score that would make her the leader of France's opposition and the country's leader in waiting.
More and more French political insiders are looking for someone who can unite the left and the center-right to take on Marine Le Pen, and then deliver the kind of reforms that might boost employment and thereby depress the FN's vote.
A Macron/Le Pen match-up would make for great political theater since — aside from his talent at playing the media — he is nearly everything she is not, everything the FN hates.
He is a top graduate of ENA, France's senior civil service school which produces the caste that rules the country. He has been through the business-government revolving door, spending years in-between stints advising the government on economic policy as an investment banker. Well-bred and well-educated, a millionaire, a technocrat, a left/right fusionist, a supporter of globalization, brash, self-confident, young and always impeccably dressed, he seems to embody France's elite, and the populist critique of it.
A Macron/Marine match-up would therefore put at its starkest the divide at the heart of France, between its people and its ruling elite. And it might usher in a new stage in French politics, one where either France's Socialist party finally reconciles itself to the market or a new kind of centrist politics emerges — or both.