PARIS Young supporters of French economy minister Emmanuel Macron launched a think-tank advocating "left-wing liberalism" on Saturday, fuelling speculation that the popular former banker is laying the groundwork for grander political ambitions.
Macron has won fans among France's EU partners through his enthusiasm for reform but has drawn the ire of many leftists in the ruling Socialists with his free-market rhetoric and struggled to keep his agenda alive in the party.
A fast-growing group called "Les Jeunes avec Macron" (Youths with Macron) or "JAM", says it is operating independently of the 38-year old minister, but wants to make sure his ideas get heard in the run-up to the 2017 presidential elections.
At the industrial-style office of a tech startup in eastern Paris, more than 200 people came to listen to the first debate of their new think-tank, called "La Gauche Libre" or the "Free Left".
"The only person in government who says we don't have to accept France's relegation, that globalisation is an opportunity, that we have to open up to the world, is Emmanuel Macron," Pierre Person, 27, one of the founders of what he calls a "political start-up", told Reuters.
The initiative has had the Paris media world abuzz with rumours. Asked on France Inter radio this week whether JAM's new think-tank was a sign he was gearing up for a political bid, Macron said: "I'm not denying that I want to do more for the country."
"But creating a faction of the Socialist party or getting into party politics, no."
The young people behind the new think-tank say they have only met Macron once, at an open-house at the finance ministry, and the minister is not managing it behind the scenes, an account echoed by Macron's staff.
But after a week where Macron made the cover of France's two most influential news magazines, L'Obs and L'Express, some in the Socialist party have been urging Macron to make it clear that he is not busy building up a political base to challenge the president.
"If he is against Francois Hollande's 2017 bid, he should say so, resign, and announce his candidacy," Socialist party head Jean-Christophe Cambadelis said on i-Tele.
At the startup's office, the young Macron supporters don't have kind words for the more than 100-year old party, that has yet to see the sort of revamp that transformed the structures, image and policies of Britain's Labour party and Germany's Social Democrats.
"We don't want to destroy the Socialist party, but you can't change it from inside. It's a party of politicians that is not representative of the left-wing electorate," Person said.
"If you want to change it today, you have to be outside."
(Reporting by Michel Rose, Editing by Dominique Vidalon and Andrew Heavens)