Those who believe competitive markets open to international trade, investment and people are the secrets of a strong economy, are well accustomed to being labelled "new right", "neoliberal", even "conservative". The labels have never worried me since they identify those who use them.

It is the language of the academic left, whose social priorities were previously powerful in political life. They use these terms to suggest economic liberalism is just an aberration, soon to pass. They have been writing its last rites for 30 years and last year, watching Brexit, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, they felt sure its sun had set.

But now they can see what would replace it. The conservative, nationalist, anti-immigration, protectionist right is not pretty. The old left might not want to choose between the liberalism and nationalism on the right but they may have to. This year, in the Netherlands and now France, left-leaning candidates are coming nowhere.

It is a similar story in Britain where the pro-European Liberal Democrats may attract more interest than Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party at the election in June.


The first round of France's presidential election last Sunday has produced a run-off next weekend between the National Front's Marine Le Pen and a young, liberal self-made millionaire, Emmanuel Macron.

Macron used to be a socialist, which is not unusual for market liberals. After graduating top of his year at the academy that seems to produce all French politicians, Ecole Nationale' d'Administration, his friends were surprised when he went into finance, joining the Rothschild bank. He told them he wanted personal independence.

At the same time he took part in left wing think-tanks and met the rising Socialist Party politician, Francois Hollande. When Hollande won the presidency in 2012, Macron became his deputy chief of staff and main economic adviser. His economic views had matured and he found the role frustrating.

Two years later, when Hollande would not make him Economy Minister, Macron quit, went to Silicon Valley and invested in technology start-ups.

But within months, Hollande, like previous Socialist presidents, realised he had to turn tough on France's overtaxed, under-working economy with high unemployment and Macron was given the job.

As Economy Minister he mounted sustained attacks on excessive welfare and the 35-hour working week, but didn't confine himself to economic reform. To the annoyance of cabinet colleagues, he spoke on any issue he wanted, indicated his ambition for higher posts.

In the wake of terrorism, he dared to put some blame on French society for the conditions that alienate immigrant minorities. Social liberalism is not unusual among economic liberals.

A year ago he left the Socialist Party to form his own, En Marche (On the Move). It stands for everything voters of Britain and the United States supposedly rejected last year. It believes in the European Union, proposes to deal with refugee applications more quickly and provide integration programmes for immigrants. Macron opposes the ban on Muslim veils at universities.


He wants to cut public spending and the corporate tax rate, promote more efficiency in the public service, let all workplaces negotiate above the 35-hour week and overhaul retirement schemes.

I don't know why academics call this sort of programme "neo" liberal. There is nothing new about it. Economic liberalism was around in the 19th century when it distinguished Britain's Liberal ("Whig") Party from the "Tories" who stood for tariff protection of that time. Liberalism was on the left of British politics until it was displaced by socialism in the 20th century.

Free markets were out of favour under governments of the left and right for most of the 20th century. It was not until the last quarter, when varying degrees of socialism had demonstrably failed, that market liberalism returned.

It was revived by the right in Britain under Margaret Thatcher and the United States under Ronald Reagan but was also adopted by Labour governments in Australia and New Zealand. It survived the so-called "third way" era of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Helen Clark. It became the orthodox economic setting of most countries, especially the former communist states of Eastern Europe.

Strangely, it has struggled in Western Europe. Germany's Social Democrat Party did some labour market deregulation the last time it was in power and France's Socialist Party governments have made similar attempts, but liberty has been equated with equality in the French revolutionary tradition.

Macron is not yet 40. He has not stood for election before. He has made it clear he is in politics for a purpose, not a career. If he is not elected next weekend he will no doubt go back to his suspended business interests.

Having rejected the established parties of the left and right last weekend, France is obviously ready for change. It could show there is life in liberalism yet.