File picture shows French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron as he attends the inauguration of "Le Verone" building, the new headquarters of Vente-privee.com in Saint-Denis, France, January 11, 2016. REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen/File(reuters_tickers)
By Brian Love and Michel Rose
PARIS (Reuters) - By the age of 35 he had brokered a $10 billion (7.10 billion pound) takeover deal. Could precocious investment banker turned politician Emmanuel Macron really become President of France before his 40th birthday?
French media were abuzz on Thursday with the prospect of the 38-year-old economy minister as head of state by next year after his launch of a new political movement called 'En Marche' or 'Stride Forward' on Wednesday night.
He says the project is neither of the left or the right. Whether he seeks the presidency or not, it could revive the coalition-friendly politics of the time before centrist Valery Giscard d'Estaing moved out of the Elysee palace in 1981, yielding to an era of deeper left-right division.
So far, Macron has not made clear whether he will mobilise for or against Socialist President Francois Hollande's creaking re-election machine, or whether any presidential bid of his own would come next year 2017, or the next time in 2022.
"Macron Strides Forward, but for whom?" asked Le Parisien daily on its front page.
"Whatever his aims are, he is OK," said Gael Sliman of pollsters Odoxa. "Depending on what the future holds for him over the next six months he can adapt his new tool to his own needs."
Since Socialist Francois Mitterrand defeated Giscard, French presidents have come firmly from the left or the right, sometimes with a cabinet from their own party, sometimes cohabiting uneasily with a parliament that names a prime minister from the other side.
The presidential electoral system pits the two top-placed candidates from a first round of voting against each other in a decisive second round, which has tended in the past to turn the run-off into a showdown between champions from the left and right.
Major candidates appealed to their party grassroots first, leaving the fight for the middle ground for the run-off.
The one exception was 2002, when far-right National Front leader Jean Marie le Pen surprisingly squeaked past the Socialists in the first round. He was crushed by centre-right incumbent Jacques Chiraq in the run-off, the most lopsided election in the history of the Fifth Republic.
But the continued rise of the far-right since then has changed the calculation. Polls now consistently show Marine le Pen, Jean Marie le Pen's daughter and successor as Front leader, winning one of the top two spots more convincingly than her father.
That means candidates from the mainstream left and right know they could be battling from the outset for a single spot to oppose her in the run-off, making the middle ground more crucial early on.
It is also partly why Les Republicains, the party of the right, is mulling whether party chief Nicolas Sarkozy or the more centrist Alain Juppe should stand next year.
VALLS UNDER PRESSURE
After Macron's intervention, other French politicians have some thinking to do, not least Prime Minister Manuel Valls, 53, himself once the widely popular pro-business and reformist icon of the Socialist centrist wing, now eclipsed by Macron and tainted by association with the unpopular Hollande.
"I won't waste my time with that," snapped Valls to reporters on Thursday when asked about Macron's moves. Asked whether the right-left divide was finished, he added; "No. It's a good divide."
Opinion polls suggest voters are tired of traditional political parties and their leaders, and keener than ever to see a fresh and independent person at the helm.
Three in four voters are "worried about" or "angry with" France's existing political parties and three-quarters of voters would be willing to vote for a non-party challenger in 2017, according to a February poll by the Elabe institute.
An Odoxa poll conducted in March that compared Macron to Valls showed voters preferred the younger man by 61 percent to 31 percent. Valls had led Macron in the same question just six months earlier.
However, recent French history provides a cautionary tale: "outsider" candidates have tended to flame out.
Francois Bayrou, a pro-EU centrist, won 18.5 percent of first-round votes in 2007, placing third behind Socialist Segolene Royal and the right's Sarkozy, who won the run-off. By 2012, Bayrou fell to fifth place.
"Bayrou is the comparable scenario here," said Sliman. "It's that promise to transcend the right/left flows in a system built on bipolar politics and the presidential election that is all important."
In launching his movement on Wednesday, Macron was careful not to completely rule out a 2017 bid for the presidency. Government sources said he warned both Hollande and Valls beforehand of his new initiative.
One person close to the minister doubts he would put himself up as a rival if Hollande runs.
"He sees the weaknesses of Hollande but he's loyal. I have never heard him criticise him... It would be too huge a gamble," said the person, who did not want to be identified, speaking before Macron's announcement on Wednesday.
That said, Hollande could conceivably cede his place as candidate. The latest polls are among the worst he has faced since he was elected in 2012 and show him missing out by a mile on the second round, regardless of who stands for the right.
Macron is not an elected politician and joined the government only in 2014. While championing pro-business labour reforms, he has also polished his interventionist credentials, wading in to influence corporate deals from telecoms to cars and energy.
Before entering government service, he worked for the Rothschild merchant bank and brokered the 9 billion euro takeover of drugmaker Pfizer's baby food business by Nestle.
As a 16 year-old, according to a profile in Le Monde, he fell in love with his teacher, Brigitte Trogneux, a mother of three then in her mid thirties. They were married in 2007.
Despite these idiosyncrasies, his approachability works in his favour. The pollsters have noticed.
"He has this huge trump card in that people like him," said Sliman. "It's that he just doesn't seem like a politician."
(Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau and Paul Taylor; writing by Andrew Callus; editing by Peter Graff)