For traditionalists of the French Socialist Party, the appointment of Emmanuel Macron as Minister of the Economy is an act of betrayal.
At 36, he is a philosopher, merchant banker and brilliant mimic and pianist but he has never stood for election.
His appointment symbolises President François Hollande’s drive to reform France and, harder still, reconstruct the French left.
Mr Macron, already detested by Socialist Party hardliners, caused consternation today, his first full day in office, when he was reminded of comments he made in an old, unpublished interview that it was time for France to reconsider its 35-hour working week.
French left-wingers, using the most insulting comparison in the their lexicon, have described him as a “copy-and-paste Tony Blair”.
In most European countries, Mr Macron’s views – already dubbed “Macron-economics” in France – would be relatively banal. He believes the socialism of the 21st century should be about creating opportunities for those excluded from the system, not always protecting the accumulated rights of those within it. He also believes in working with business, not against it.
His youth, and unconventional personal life, would have made Mr Macron an unusual choice for Economy Minister in any circumstances. Six years ago, aged 30, he married a 50-year-old who had been his French teacher when he was 17. They often spend their weekends with “their” grandchildren.
The sense of political culture shock on the French left – and in France as a whole – has been heightened by the contrast with Mr Macron’s predecessor, Arnaud Montebourg, a devoted apostle of the old French socialist religion of dirigisme and stateism.
Mr Montebourg, 51, brought down the French government this week by attacking the economic policies that he was supposed to implement. In particular, he attacked the drive to reduce budget deficits within the eurozone as a self-defeating “Kafkaesque” absurdity, imposed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
During his reign as Industry Minister and then Economy Minister, Mr Montebourg caused international headlines by threatening to throw the British-based steel company Mittal out of France and threatening (figuratively) to install lie detectors in company boardrooms. Although a more complex figure than he appears, Mr Montebourg plays to the large constituency on the French left which is protectionist, anti-European and anti-American.
By contrast, Mr Macron is a devoted pro-European and admirer of the United States. As a senior aide in President Hollande’s Elysée Palace, he was largely responsible for the President’s change of direction in January towards cuts in the high payroll taxes which cripple France’s competitiveness.
He was also an economic adviser during Mr Hollande’s 2012 presidential campaign. He was not consulted in advance about the candidate’s celebrated sop to the left – a promise to impose a 75 per cent marginal tax on multi-millionaires. At the time, Mr Macron muttered that such a policy (still not implemented) would turn France into “Cuba without the sunshine”.
In the same speech in March 2012, Mr Hollande declared that his “enemy” was “big finance”. Left-wingers within the Socialist Party have recalled these words over and over since Mr Macron was appointed Economy Minister – to widespread astonishment – on Tuesday. From 2008 to 2012 the new Economy Minister worked for the Rothschild merchant bank.
There could be no clearer symbol, according to traditionalist Socialist politicians, of President Hollande’s “apostasy” and determination to “cut himself off” from the grass-roots of his party. At least 50 Socialist members of the National Assembly think that way.
Others are prepared to give Mr Hollande – and Mr Macron – a chance. Another 200 Socialist deputies signed a petition supporting the reformist policies of the President and the Prime Minister, Manuel Valls.
With unemployment at 10 per cent and rising and the economy flat-lining, Mr Macron certainly has his work cut out.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies