Macron launches French presidential campaign

French politician Francois Fillon, member of the conservative Les Republicains political party, arrives to attend a political rally as he campaigns for his party presidential primary in Strasbourg, France, November 7, 2016. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

Former minister Emmanuel Macron launched his bid for the French presidency on Wednesday, a move likely to take votes from mainstream candidates in a tight race where opinion polls predict a strong showing for far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

The 38-year-old former investment banker, who until earlier this year was Socialist President Francois Hollande’s economy minister, will stand as an independent in the election which takes place next year.

Although among France’s most popular politicians, Macron does not hold elected office and has no party apparatus behind him, he also has yet to set out his policies in any detail.

However, he is widely seen as a competitor for some of therepu same votes as conservative favorite Alain Juppe, the current favorite to win the presidency, who will fight it out for the center-right nomination in a presidential primary election starting on Sunday.

At his launch in an apprenticeship center northeast of Paris, Macron said he wanted to move France away from “clan-based politics“.

I’ve witnessed the shallowness of our political system from the inside,” he said.

He added that the best way for France to deal with globalization was closer ties with the rest of Europe, in contrast to the inward-looking policpresidentialies of some other contenders.

Juppe has fought his campaign so far on a pro-European and centrist platform to the left of his main rival, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Ex-president Sarkozy in turn has sought to appeal to the populist end of the voter spectrum with a campaign that includes criticism of European Union policy and a strident call for tighter border security after a series of militant Islamist attacks hit France in the past year.

Polls until this week showed 71-year-old former Prime Minister Juppe winning the primaries of the Les Republicans party and its center-right allies, beating Sarkozy.

Juppe would then be propelled in the election itself by voters of the mainstream right, center and left, all determined to keep the popular anti-EU, anti-immigration National Front leader Le Pen from power.

But fresh poll readings in recent days have managed to rattle that consensus.

In the background is a feeling that more surprises might be on their way. Donald Trump’s unexpected victory raised the prospect that surveys might still be failing to capture the full scale of the populist vote being courted by Sarkozy and Le Pen.

Macron is the banks’ candidate,” Le Pen said on Wednesday.

What is for sure is that he will not be stealing any of our voters.”

Juppe may have more to worry about, and he is under attack from other quarters too.

Since the weekend, opinion polls have been showing Francois Fillon, the prime minister under Sarkozy’s first presidency between 2007 and 2012, gaining ground fast as the “third man” in the Les Republicans contest while Juppe’s support has slipped.

On Tuesday night, an Opinion way poll showed Fillon neck-and-neck with Sarkozy in second place for the first round of the primaries behind Juppe.

As in the presidential election itself, only two candidates go through to a run-off second round, and Opinion way shows Fillon beating Juppe by 54 percent to 46 should he progress at Sarkozy’s expense.

Fillon has in the past espoused Thatcherism free market policies in determinedly dirigisme France, and wants to cut up to 600,000 public sector jobs even more than Sarkozy, but is also seen as a ‘lightweight’ version of his former boss on security and immigration.

Other polls in recent days have also shown Fillon gaining votes as Juppe loses them. Much of Juppe’s support, by contrast, is seen as an ephemeral ‘least-worst’ choice, while the abrasive Sarkozy’s backers are more hard-core in his favor.

You may be surprised but I am not,” Fillon said on Wednesday of his poll ratings.

I have been saying for months and months that … the primaries would start at the point where the candidates start taking to the French people,” he said on RTL Radio.

Macron quit the government at the end of August to set up his own political movement called “En Marche“, which translates as “Forward” or “Onwards“.

His presence in the contest is also likely to further fragment the already divided left-wing vote as speculation swirls that Prime Minister Manuel Valls will stand instead of the deeply unpopular Hollande.

An October poll published by Odoxa put Macron at the top of a list of potential presidents from the left, with 49 percent considering him a good head of state. Valls came second on 42 percent. Hollande trailed on 13.

Reuters/Hauwa M.