One rainy morning in June, France's Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron stepped out of his chauffeur-driven sedan in a modest suburb of Paris, for what seemed like a humdrum official duty: inaugurating a new postage stamp. Within seconds, loud boos and shouts of "casse-toi!"—"go away!"— erupted from the crowd jamming the street. As police edged the young man of slender build away from the bedlam, eggs flew over their heads, one hitting Macron squarely on his forehead and seeping into his hair.
It was hardly a dignified greeting for a possible future President of France. But it was par for the course in a France that for months this year has teetered on the edge of disarray. The country is still on high alert for terrorist attacks after the ISIS rampage on Paris last November and the killings of two police officers in June at their home outside the city. The mammoth FIFA European Football Championships that span June and July have been rocked by fan violence and heavy-handed responses by nervy police and security forces.
The anger coursing through France is not linked only to fears of terrorism, however. For months, the country has been gripped by increasingly violent protests and strikes over government reforms of decades-old labor protections. Those plans include overhauling dated rules that have metastasized over decades: Watertight job security; a 35-hour workweek enshrined in law; mammoth payouts for laid-off staff; and laws that order stores to be shut on Sundays.
The proposed changes are an attempt to boost the tepid economy, which hovers at near-zero growth and unemployment rates near 11% (and closer to 25% for youth). Change is sorely needed in France. But through this summer of discontent each side has dug itself deeper in—so that now, the battle has overwhelmed the issues at hand. And much like the groundswell among Britons that led to their vote to leave the E.U. in June, many French blame a diffuse set of elites—politicians in Paris, bureaucrats in Brussels—for having seemingly left them behind, with even their Socialist government seeking to undercut labor protections.
In the eye of this storm is the unlikely figure of Emmanuel Macron. Just 38, the well-mannered former investment banker for Rothschild Ltd. is decades younger than his colleagues, including the Socialist president François Hollande, 61, who hand-picked him as his economic advisor and then his Minister of Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs. Macron's mission: Drive through reforms, even if it means demolishing cherished left-wing principles.
While Macron is not the minister overseeing the reforms the protesters abhor — that's Labor Minister Myriam El Khomri — he's become the most vocal proponent of an economic overhaul of the country. "The functioning of our society is in a certain way sclerotic," Macron tells TIME, sipping on a diet Coke on June 13, as he sinks into a black leather couch in his spacious office overlooking the Seine. "This model is no longer sustainable."
The French initially speculated that Macron was there to do Hollande's dirty work; the hit satirical-news puppet show "Les Guignols de l'Info" depicted Hollande pinching the cheeks of his infant protégé, and cooing, "he's so cute." But that joke has worn thin. Hollande's poll ratings have steadily sunk to around 16% percent, the lowest of any French leader in generations. Macron, meanwhile, has soared to nearly double that figure, near the top of many polls. Despite never having won an election, his face has been plastered across every magazine and newspapers as the potential next occupant of the Elysée Palace. "This may be the best piece of news France has had in years," one journalist gushed in The London Times.
Macron's jolting youth and clean-cut looks have set him in contrast to France's political grandees. So too has his fluent English and sharp intellect, suffused with references to philosophers; one magazine interview included footnotes for readers. The French have relished his personal story, too: Macron is married to his former high-school teacher, 20 years his senior, whom he began dating as a teenager, and has seven step-grandchildren.
Although Macron says he remains loyal to Hollande, he has done nothing to tamp down the buzz over his chances to replace him—nor to cool his withering critique of French society. In April, he launched his own political party—a stunning move for a cabinet minister—called En Marche! (roughly, On the Move!)—and quickly signed up 55,000 members, in a direct challenge to Hollande.
The party is widely seen as a prelude to a presidential run (its initials, E.M., are the same as those of its founder) and aims to break through a corrosive schism, as politicians agree to expanded benefits without being able to pay for them. "We need to produce more," Macron says.
He is pushing to loosen up employment laws, allowing people to work longer hours and even strive to get wealthy, an idea long viewed with suspicion in France. Just this week he told Bloomberg he believed France should try to lure British financial institutions to move to Paris after Brexit. In 2012, when Hollande suggested taxing incomes above a million euros at 75%, Macron told him bluntly that such an increase would turn France into "Cuba without the sun." Hollande quietly ditched the idea.
Still, as talented as Macron is, he says he cannot convince all French that change is necessary; many regard state benefits and protections as sacrosanct, despite public debt of around 97% of GDP. The schism, Macron says, is not between rich and poor, but between "insiders" with secure jobs, and "outsiders" who cannot get hired, because companies find it too difficult to lay off anyone they hire. "There is this deep conviction in this country that rules are good for poor people," he says. "But it is not automatically the case."
Indeed, to many "outsiders," like youth, immigrants and minorities, Macron has become an unlikely champion by pushing digital companies with low barriers to entry. One of these companies is Uber, the U.S.-owned transportation company which has recruited hundreds of drivers from poor, immigrant-heavy neighborhoods — the so-called quartiers — and which has faced taxi drivers smashing their cars, and countless legal challenges in court. "In the quartiers Macron is associated with Uber. And Uber gives work," Socialist Party official Ali Soumaré told a French journalist.
Another Macron initiative has been to open up regulated occupations like hairdressers and even driving schools—a major grievance in France, where it costs thousands of euros and months of classes to get a drivers' license. Macron's trip to Montreuil that rainy morning in June included a visit to a new driving school that offers courses to low-income residents for a sliver of prices elsewhere, unimaginable in years past.
Many of these attempts to chisel away at France's rigid employment laws have been lost amid the televised protests, showing France in upheaval. Macron blames the violence on hardline "anarchists and ultraleftists" who he says have turned orderly union grievances into toxic battles. "Their overreaction for me is just a symptom of the fact that they are at the end of the model," he says.
The rage shows no sign of ending, however. Strikes on June 14 ground trains in Paris to a standstill and left mounds of garbage uncollected. Protesters marching through the city's Left Bank ripped up the sidewalk and hurled chunks of concrete at riot police, while a protester spray-painted on a hospital wall, "Ne travaillez jamais"—"Never work." There was similar fury against Macron that day in Montreuil, where the CGT union that has led the nationwide protests is headquartered. There, demonstrators unfurled a banner reading, "rather on strike than in a suit," a reference to an encounter Macron had two weeks earlier, when a protester mocked his expensive suits. Macron had snapped back, "the best way to afford a suit is to work." The video of his remark went viral, casting Macron as an rich elitist, disconnected from financial pain. "It had an impact," says Esteban Pratviel, chief of strategy for the polling agency Ifop, which since saw Macron's high poll rating slip slightly.
Yet Macron already has begun building the groundwork for a movement to connect with the people. Thousands of members of his En Marche! members have fanned out across France since early June, knocking on people's doors to ask what they want from their politicians. The "Great March," as it is known, was modeled on Barack Obama's first presidential campaign in 2008. The brainchild of political consultant Guillaume Liegey, the grassroots campaign has brought a trove of information that could be invaluable to Macron should he choose to run. "What is crazy is the high percentage of voters who have stopped voting," Liegey says. "They are disengaged."
The same cannot be said for the En Marche! enthusiasts—Macroniacs, as they might be called. One evening in the Paris neighborhood of Montmartre, TIME joined six members on a door-knocking session—something they said they devoted many weekends and evenings to doing. So far, En Marche! says it has conducted 14,000 interviews.
In one building down a narrow street, Maelle Charreau, 22, an intern with the French company Danone, knocked on the door of Marie-Christina, a 56-year-old actress. "We don't want to persuade you, we just want to hear your views," Charreau said. "I really like Macron," the actress replied. "But the left, I cannot bear anymore. They are infected with radicals." Charreau says her experience knocking on doors has inspired her about politics. "Emmanuel Macron arrived and proposed this dynamic new project," she says. "I did not find any other offer that interested me in France."
This attempt to go directly to ordinary French citizens underscores Macron's reluctance to appear as a creature of the inbred political class, of whom French voters have grown deeply suspicious. Far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen has surged in regional elections since 2014 by arguing that she can far better represent struggling, common people than France's clubby power players in Paris.
It will require deft acrobatics for Macron to cast himself the outsider. He hails from the cloistered schools that has churned out decades of French leaders, including Hollande, and many cabinet members and CEOs. The trick—not easy—will be powering through his reforms within Hollande's government, while cutting his distance from the president. "I am a newcomer. I want to remain a newcomer," he says. "That is my DNA."
It might be too late for the newcomer to win the presidency in next year's elections, scheduled for April. With Hollande at rock-bottom popularity ratings, there are many vying to replace him, including rivals in his own party, who will challenge him in a party primary next January. There are strong conservative competitors too, including former President Nicolas Sarkozy. Since French elections are fought in two rounds, millions could abandon the Socialists to block Le Pen from winning the decisive second round.
But Macron has one crucial advantage: He is a lot younger than all those politicians. He has time, and plenty of it. If it takes him five or even 10 years to build his movement and rise to the top, he would still be a strikingly young French leader. "He not only has the ambition, but also the talent," says Marc Ferracci, a longtime friend of Macron's whose wife now works in his ministry. "Now it is a question of timing."
When Macron visited the small driving school in Montreuil that June morning, the owner handed him a boxed gift. Inside lay a sculpture of the literary character Don Quixote, the self-styled knight who fights for impossibly noble ideals. Macron laughed as he picked it up. "We need people who dream impossible things," he said, "who maybe fail, sometimes succeed, but in any case who have that ambition." Macron's dream—being President—no longer seems impossible.