Surge for France’s young pretender alarms Fillon camp

 

December 22 2016

Charles Bremner, Paris

 

 

Emmanuel Macron, the young centrist contender for the French presidency, has begun to alarm mainstream candidates as supporters flock to his outsider campaign and a poll has anointed him the country’s most popular politician.

 

François Fillon, 62, the conservative favourite for the spring elections, has turned his guns on Mr Macron as the charismatic ex-minister has become a threat. Mr Macron, who turned 39 yesterday, is riding a tide driven by charm and a vague manifesto for change, attracting voters who fear Mr Fillon’s promises of harsh cuts to the welfare state.

 

“Macron has no experience and proved nothing so far,” Mr Fillon said this month of the deserter from President Hollande’s government whom he had praised a few months earlier.

 

Mr Macron is also a menace to President Hollande’s Socialist Party, which is locked in a bitter seven-contender campaign to elect a candidate next month. Manuel Valls, the Socialist favourite, could find himself eclipsed by his former subordinate, who served as economy minister when Mr Valls was Mr Hollande’s prime minister.

 

So far, polls on the spring elections put Mr Macron behind Mr Fillon, Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, and Mr Valls, but he is catching up. “Macron mania” drew an impressive 14,000 people to hear the candidate at a rally in Paris earlier this month.

 

His one-man movement “En Marche!” [On the move] has recruited 100,000 members. It propelled him for the first time to the top spot in a monthly Odoxa survey of political popularity on Monday with 35 per cent approval. That compared with 31 per cent for Mr Fillon, 27 per cent for Ms Le Pen and 21 per cent for Mr Valls. Mr Hollande was rated at 18 per cent, a four-point rise since he announced that he would not seek a second term.

 

Benoist Apparu, Mr Fillon’s campaign spokesman, acknowledged on Monday that Mr Macron “intrigues people. He is impressive and we must not take him lightly.” Luc Chatel, president of Mr Fillon’s Republicans party, said: “I underestimated his potential. His campaign is taking off.”

 

After ousting Nicolas Sarkozy and Alain Juppé, the two frontrunners, from the primary race for the conservative candidacy, Mr Fillon has fallen back largely because of his unpopular plans for cutting health services. He backtracked last week to the point of erasing the most controversial of his manifesto pledges on healthcare from his campaign website.

 

Mr Macron’s fate will be shaped by the outcome of the Socialist primary on January 29. If the moderate Mr Valls is beaten by Arnaud Montebourg, a radical leftist, a boulevard of middle ground will open up for Mr Macron. Centre-left voters could flock to him as the only champion of moderate modernising reform. Once the Socialists have a candidate, they will turn their attention to Mr Macron and start trying to demolish the candidacy of a former colleague who disowned them, claiming they were out of date.

 

Dominique de Villepin, a former conservative prime minister, said that Mr Macron was making an impact across the field. “Emmanuel Macron is shaking up the game inside the Socialist Party as he is shaking it up among today’s frontrunners,” he said.