Former banker Emmanuel Macron could pull off an upset in France's presidential elections, if recent opinion polls are to be believed, potentially giving the country a bank-friendly president who is in favor of fintech and who hopes to make Paris a key financial center in the wake of Brexit.
Macron, somewhat the dark horse in the running for France's top job, has been gaining ground in the race for the Elysée Palace in recent polls. A former economy minister to President François Hollande, he created his own political movement, En Marche!, in 2016, which purports to transcend the political classes. He portrays himself as an outsider, having never been elected to public office; he was picked for the economy minister job by Hollande after serving as his adviser.
A poll published Feb. 1 in Les Echos sees Macron making it to the second round with 22% to 23% of the vote, and the National Front's Marine Le Pen getting through with 26% to 27%. Former front-runner François Fillon, a Republican, would come in a poor third with 19% to 20% of the vote. Le Pen would be crushed in the second round by Macron, who would gain 65% of the vote, the poll predicts.
The first round is scheduled for April 23; a runoff between the top two candidates will take place May 7.
Fillon is losing the confidence of French people amid allegations that he gave his British wife a ghost job as a parliamentary assistant. The satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné has reported that she was paid nearly €1 million in public funds over a number of years, and the French financial prosecutor's office has opened an investigation. Fillon had been losing ground against Macron amid perceived policy backtracking on his plans to reform France's social security system, and his recent woes have compounded this trend. He has portrayed himself as a clean-cut, scandal-free candidate and has railed against the waste of public funds.
Macron, a former Rothschild banker, has yet to publish his economic program and is expected to do so at the end of February. But he has given away some nuggets, such as coming out in favor of reducing employers' tax contributions, encouraging small business and entrepreneurs, being flexible on the 35-hour working week and introducing a eurozone budget that would help regions in difficulty.
"Macron is well-viewed by the financial markets," said Alexandre Baradez, chief market analyst at trading firm IG. "The Macron hypothesis has not had any downward pressure on markets. His economic program is more business-orientated, and markets like that."
As economy minister, Macron was very much in favor of deregulation, implementing legislation known as the "Loi Macron" that was aimed at liberalizing sectors across the economy, increasing competition and restarting France's stalled economic growth. One aspect of the law makes it easier for customers to change banks by, for example, obliging the new bank to take charge of changing standing orders, and is designed to shake up France's rather staid banking sector. The law also opened up the possibility for Sunday shopping in France and liberalized the transportation market, among other things.
"One of his driving forces is this move toward deregulation," said Jean-Charles Simon, president of consultancy Stacian. "He has wanted to get rid of the obstacles to change in France ... liberalizing the market by getting rid of regulation."
Fintech support, Brexit hopes
As economy minister, Macron was also in charge of industry and the digital economy and started opening up legislation around blockchain, with experiments on the mini-bond market. Blockchain, the technology behind Bitcoin, works by logging time-stamped "blocks" of electronic records that are shared between the parties of a transaction and promises big cost savings in the financial sector. Macron has also talked up financial technology, a sector that is booming in France, at conferences and warned against too much regulation in the sector.
"Fintech cannot be a no-man's land, for finance has never been able to develop without a regulatory framework, [but] it cannot be over-regulated [either]," Macron told a conference in Paris in May 2016. "The challenge for the authorities will be to implement a flexible but secure regulatory framework."
Macron also sees opportunities for Paris as financial services firms seek to relocate activities in the wake of Britain's vote to leave the EU. Speaking to Bloomberg News, he said he would like to move euro clearing business to the French capital from London, and he is in favor of loosening France's tight labor laws. He was minister when Hollande's government passed legislation making it easier for companies to hire and fire employees, albeit water downed from its original version.
"[Macron] is fully aware that the French employment laws don't create the right environment for financial services as London does," said Aarti Shankar, a policy analyst at Open Europe.