French economy chief Macron, eyeing presidential bid, quits

FILE - In this March 14, 2016 file photo, Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron gives a press conference, in Paris. Macron, an outspoken former investment banker who has encouraged start-ups and more labor flexibility, has quit the socialist government Tuesday Aug. 30, 2016 amid speculation that he is considering a presidential bid. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus, File)
FILE - In this Jan.6, 2016 file photo, French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron waves as he leaves after a visit to a shopping center. Macron, an outspoken former investment banker who has encouraged start-ups and more labor flexibility, has quit the socialist government Tuesday Aug. 30, 2016 amid speculation that he is considering a presidential bid. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena; File)
FILE - In this Sept. 16, 2015 file photo, French Economy minister Emmanuel Macron leaves after the weekly cabinet meeting at the Elysee palace in Paris. Macron, an outspoken former investment banker who has encouraged start-ups and more labor flexibility, has quit the socialist government Tuesday Aug. 30, 2016 amid speculation that he is considering a presidential bid. (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon, File)
FILE - In this July 31, 2015 file photo, French President Francois Hollande, left, shake hands with the French Economy minister Emmanuel Macron in the lobby of the Elysee Palace. Macron, an outspoken former investment banker who has encouraged start-ups and more labor flexibility, has quit the socialist government Tuesday Aug. 30, 2016 amid speculation that he is considering a presidential bid. (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon, File)
FILE - In this July 12, 2016 file photo, French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron, center right, delivers a speech during a political rally for his movement, En Marche! (Forward!), in Paris. Macron, an outspoken former investment banker who has encouraged start-ups and more labor flexibility, has quit the socialist government Tuesday Aug. 30, 2016 amid speculation that he is considering a presidential bid. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus, File)

PARIS — French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron, an outspoken former investment banker who has encouraged startups and more labor flexibility, has quit the socialist government amid speculation that he is considering a presidential bid.

Macron this year started a political movement called "En Marche!" (In Motion) that he presents as neither right- nor left-wing. In explaining his decision to leave, Macron made a clear reference to the presidential election.

"Today I want to start a new step and build a project to serve the common good," Macron said in a news conference. Macron said he will present his proposals for the country in coming months.

"I'm determined to do everything so that our values, our ideas and our action can change France next year," he said.

While polls show he enjoys wide popularity, it's unclear whether he could translate that into votes.

Critics in Hollande's Socialist Party say Macron has betrayed left wing ideals by pushing France toward an American-style business model with laws loosening labor rules.

Macron, 38, argues that France needs change to stay competitive internationally. He has never held elected office.

He has repeatedly stressed he is not a member of the Socialist party even if he was part of a Socialist government.

Political analyst Frederic Dabi of the survey institute Ifop said Macron's challenge is now "to turn high popularity into voting intentions, but it's a hard task, because he's not very popular in the left wing and because his popularity in the right wing does not necessarily mean votes."

"In any case, a key minister of (President Francois) Hollande's government leaving in the last moments of the 5-year term can be seen as a sign of disorder," Dabi said.

Hollande's office said that Finance Minister Michel Sapin will take over Macron's responsibilities.

Hollande, the most unpopular president in French modern history, has not announced yet whether he will run for re-election next year.

Macron first came to prominence when he was named economy minister in 2014, after being one of Hollande's top advisers. At the time, he caused a big uproar in the French left by saying he would be open to rethinking France's 35-hour workweek.

Macron last year championed an economic reform bill that has been criticized by many on the left, leading to a dramatic power struggle within the governing Socialist Party. Traditionally pro-Socialist labor groups opposed the plan to dilute France's famously stringent workplace protections.

Among other things, the reform allows stores to open 12 times a year on Sunday instead of five and lets stores expand evening hours.

Macron has also contributed significantly to another law freeing up labor rules that has led to a dozen — often violent — protests across the country this year.

Economist Marc Touati, president of Acdefi consulting firm, said Macron gave the government "some entrepreneurial credit" yet he was not in a position to pursue more decisive reforms.

"Maybe he couldn't do more (in this government), but his reforms remained far from what France needs," Touati said, noting France's economy is still relatively weak.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development forecasts France economy to expand 1.4 percent this year. The unemployment rate has hovered over 10 percent for years.

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