PARIS: France's rising political star Emmanuel Macron has been warned he must play his role in government as his behaviour fuels speculation he harbours ambitions to run for president in 2017.
Barely two weeks after the 38-year-old reform-minded economy minister announced he was setting up his own political movement, Macron's bandwagon is well and truly rolling.
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The former banker is getting so much media attention that some Socialist Party colleagues are questioning if he can continue to serve in the government or if his presence is undermining an already unpopular president.
The unease was clear when Macron visited a factory in Chartres, outside Paris, with President Francois Hollande on Thursday.
While Macron was happy to pose for selfies with employees, he appeared less keen to be photographed alongside the president.
"Emmanuel isn't here," said a visibly irritated Hollande as he lined up without his economy minister for the group shot. A grinning Macron arrived just in time to take his place in the lineup.
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Later, it emerged Macron had told local newspapers he rejected suggestions he was "in debt" to Hollande, who brought him into the cabinet in 2014.
The quote received widespread coverage and within hours, Macron insisted his words had been "taken out of context".
"I have a personal loyalty to Francois Hollande. He had confidence in me and named me to the government and therefore I respect him," he said.
Visiting Warsaw on Friday, Macron complained that "some people want to use the slightest word, the slightest initiative to weaken the president".
The problem for the Socialists is that while Macron refuses to rule out a bid for France's highest office in next year's election, Hollande's abysmal poll ratings make it hard for him to appear the natural candidate of the left 12 months from now.
Hollande's response to Macron setting up his "En marche" (On the move) movement was to say the economics minister "has to be in my team, under my authority".
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"It's a question of personal and political loyalty," the president said last week.
Macron's cabinet colleagues have called on him to get into line.
On Wednesday Prime Minister Manuel Valls -- who has clashed with Macron in the past -- said "each minister should attend to his office and to his job".
A day later, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian urged Macron to be a "team player".
On Friday it was the turn of Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, who said Macron was a "competent" minister but one who "should concentrate on his work because while the economy is doing a little bit better, we're not out of the crisis yet".
Growth in France has begun to pick up after a few dismal years, but unemployment remains stuck at around 10 percent and Macron's attempts to push through business-friendly reforms have met resistance.
The appeals for unity from his colleagues have done little to stop Macron setting out his political ambitions.
In an interview with Belgian newspaper Le Soir, he said he wanted to "assess the state of France" later this year before drawing up "a plan of action", although he insisted such a plan "is not a programme (for a campaign)".
The aim was to "foster a presidential bid", he said -- but not necessarily for himself.
"It's only after establishing a diagnosis and putting forward a plan of action that the question of which person should do it comes up," he said, hinting that the candidate could also be Hollande.
The president has said he will decide at the end of the year whether to seek re-election, but a poll last week predicted he would be eliminated in the first round of the two-round contest.
In the eyes of even Socialist voters, Hollande has so far failed to get France back to work.
"The French don't want him to run. His word has been debased," said Gael Sliman, a political scientist from the Odoxa polling institute.
The same poll showed that Macron would fare better if he was named the Socialist candidate, and would progress into the second round, possibly to face far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
Yet many questions remain for a man who has never held elected office -- and Hollande's aides have been quick to fire a few shots across Macron's bows, albeit anonymously.
One said that while Macron's initiatives brought "energy to the debate", he also "rubbed up his own friends the wrong way".
Another, an old friend of the president, summed up the feelings of Macron's opponents: "He is witty and pleasant but his ego needs reining in."
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