French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron leaves the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, following the weekly cabinet meeting, March 24, 2016. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes(reuters_tickers)
By Michel Rose
PARIS (Reuters) - French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday launched a new political movement he said would be neither of the left nor of the right, potentially shaking up the political landscape just a year before presidential elections.
The initiative by one of the Socialist government's most popular ministers will fuel speculation that the former investment banker is laying the groundwork for grander political ambitions.
The 38-year-old's pitch for the middle ground also further muddies French political waters, where the rise of the far right National Front has left the mainstream parties along with their much older likely candidates with a reduced constituency to aim at.
"I have decided to create a new political movement," Macron told a gathering in his hometown of Amiens, northern France, unveiling the name of a group called "En Marche!", or "Forward!".
"I'm in a left-wing government, unashamedly, ... but I also want to work with people from the right, who commit to the same values," he said at the event broadcast on Dailymotion, a French internet video service along the lines of YouTube.
"This ambition, it's radical, it's a bit crazy, but there is such an energy in the country."
French media has been abuzz with talk Macron may have higher political ambitions after young supporters of the former Rothschild banker launched a think-tank last month.
Macron said the 2017 presidential elections were not his priority, but he did not rule out being a candidate.
"It's not a movement for yet another candidate for the presidential election, that's not my priority today," said Macron, wearing his habitual dark suit but, unusually, no tie.
"But I also see all the things I don't manage to get done, all the things that are blocked, and this movement is to get beyond these," he added at a gathering he called a 'citizens meeting' and at which no journalists were allowed.
Macron has won fans among France's EU partners through his enthusiasm for pro-business reforms in which he has sought to "unblock" heavily regulated sectors of the economy and to tackle the rigidity of the French labour market.
But having never been elected to office, his lack of a political base means he has found it difficult to convince President Francois Hollande to speed up those changes in the eurozone's second-biggest economy, and has often voiced that frustration.
The popularity of Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls has sunk to new lows in opinion polls in recent weeks as high unemployment and low growth continues to dog the economy, prompting some lawmakers in the Socialist party to call for an open primary to choose next year's Socialist nominee for the elections.
Macron, who became a minister less than two years ago, remains relatively popular, even though some of the changes he has championed have been vilified by some of the traditional left-wing voters who helped put Hollande in power in 2012.
His centrist credentials help him with the wider French public, but a poll published on Wednesday showed just how much Macron would struggle to convince traditional Socialists.
He came in first as the best candidate for the left, the Elabe pollster found. But he only came in fourth, behind Hollande, Valls and Martine Aubry, author of the 35-hour workweek, when the question was put to Socialist sympathisers only.
Socialist party chief Jean-Christophe Cambadelis sent a clear warning to Macron.
"He can choose his camp. If he wants to change the left's centre of gravity, he's going the wrong way," he said in an interview with Les Echos newspaper to be published on Thursday.
(Reporting by Michel Rose; Editing by Andrew Callus)