François Hollande took to prime-time television last Thursday in an attempt to salvage a presidency that almost nine in 10 French voters have already written off as a resounding failure. So much so that Mr. Hollande's first town hall event in two years – during which he insisted France "is doing better" – was easily eclipsed by the latest cover of Paris Match.
A guilty pleasure no self-respecting Frenchman would admit to enjoying, the glossy lifestyles-of-the-famous magazine is still a reliable of gauge of who's up in French politics, aristocracy, culture and sports. And these days, no French politician is rising more quickly than Emmanuel Macron, Mr. Hollande's 38-year-old minister of the economy and potential Brutus-in-the-making.
Mr. Macron's appearance on the Paris Match cover, holding hands with his much older wife, came with a caption declaring the couple "together on the road to power." With a year until the next French presidential election, the former investment banker is emerging as the left's best hope to hold on to the Élysée Palace as voters desert the governing Socialists.
Mr. Macron, who has never actually held elected office, is to French Socialism what Tony Blair is to Britain's Labour. He's either a heretic or a saviour. That is, if he's a still a Socialist at all. This month, Mr. Macron launched a new political movement called En Marche ("in motion") whose initials just happen to match his own. He intends EM to be "neither right nor left," but "transpartisan," because France's existing "political geography is obsolete" and its ideological "cleavages" are blocking progress. What he really has up his sleeve is a matter of intense political chatter.
Mr. Hollande has still not said whether he will run again, promising a decision by the end of the year. But an overwhelming majority of French voters have already declared him a dead duck, not just a lame one. In barely five months, he has entirely dilapidated the political capital he accumulated after the November terrorist attacks in Paris, as infighting among Socialists saps his authority.
Mr. Hollande was forced to abandon his plan to amend the Constitution to strip dual citizens convicted of terrorism of their French passports after his justice minister resigned over the proposal, threatening a wider schism within his party. His government was also compelled to water down proposed changes to France's notoriously rigid labour code that would make it easier to lay off workers and extend the 35-hour work week.
Mr. Hollande is the leader of a party whose base, or what's left of it, remains fiercely wedded (to its credit) to the principles of égalité and (to its discredit) outdated notions of economic interventionism. Since March 31, young protesters decrying the labour reforms have been occupying the Place de la République – the same square where Parisians gathered in solidarity after November's attacks – further undermining Mr. Hollande's leadership.
While Mr. Hollande was talking up his presidency on state-owned TV, Mr. Macron was across the channel raising money for his new movement among expat friends in the City, London's financial district. At a time when most of Europe seems to be veering either to the far right or far left, Mr. Macron is defiantly centrist. He still calls himself a progressive, but his signature initiative as economic minister has sought to liberalize Sunday shopping laws and to break up professional guilds that have made the French economy an over-regulated mess.
Having served as Mr. Hollande's top economic adviser before joining his cabinet in 2014, Mr. Macron is also the inspiration for the government's proposed labour code reforms. While in London, however, he suggested the reforms could be scrapped altogether, declaring: "It's always complicated to launch reforms at the end of a mandate." This arrow piqued his boss. Mr. Hollande protested that he would continue to launch reforms "until the last day" of his term and upbraided his impertinent minister, saying "he knows what he owes me." It's hard to imagine this relationship ending well.
The outcome of next year's presidential vote is as unpredictable as the weather on April 23, 2017, the likely date of the election's first round. The French right is as deeply divided as the left, with Republicans split over former president Nicolas Sarkozy's attempted comeback. And far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen has her own problems and may have peaked too soon.
This might not be Mr. Macron's last Paris Match cover.