ANNECY, France (Reuters) - Previously-loyal lawmakers inside Emmanuel Macron's party are voicing dissent about its direction, according to interviews with party insiders, exposing new faultlines in the political base the French president needs to deliver his reform agenda.
Macron came to power promising to shake up the economy, but he needs a solid powerbase to deliver that in the face of fierce resistance from trade unions, the political opposition and the grass-roots "yellow vest" protest movement.
Showing the scale of the dissent, around 20 lawmakers with Macron's La Republique en Marche (LaRem) party are supporting Cedric Villani, who rebelled against the party to run for mayor of Paris against the party's candidate, according to six parliamentary sources, including two who do not back Villani.
In another sign of dissent, lawmaker Frederique Lardet, a former hotel executive who quit her job to join Macron's movement, said she was prepared if necessary to go against the party's wishes to mount a bid for the job of mayor in her home city of Annecy in the French Alps.
"I don't want to leave the party, but if I stick to my decision and I'm told to leave the party, I'll obey," Lardet told Reuters in an interview, making public for the first time her discontent with LaRem.
Asked to comment on dissent, a LaRem spokesman said: "There can be disappointment and tensions locally, it's normal. But in the choices we make, we are careful to remain coherent and try to stick together."
Macron's party has 300 seats in the 577-seat National Assembly, so faces no short-term risk of losing the majority he needs to get his reforms adopted into law, but there is growing unease in party ranks.
Since he became president, Macron faced some dissent from the left-wing of his party who disliked his tough stance on immigration and on liberalising the economy. Nine lawmakers have left the group over policy disagreements since 2018.
The latest wave of dissent is different because it comes from people who squarely support Macron's policies but believe the party is being drawn into conducting politics-as-usual. The dissent goes beyond squabbling about mayoral candidates and to the heart of the party's identity.
Four Macron lawmakers who spoke to Reuters said they were troubled by the party's decision to pick as its candidate for Paris mayor not Villani, a charismatic mathematician, but Benjamin Griveaux, a long-standing disciple of Macron.
"Villani's bid highlights what's wrong with the movement," one said on condition of anonymity. "They don't consult their base enough."
"It's like a bunch of mates who divvy up the positions, and it's starting to show: the emperor has no clothes," she added.
Anne-Christine Lang, a Paris lawmaker with Macron's party who is actively backing Villani's mayoral bid, said: "Villani embodies the shot of oxygen in political life that Emmanuel Macron used to be."
Immigration is another source of dissent. Existing criticism from LaRem's left-wing grew more acute after Macron said last month the party should confront the issue of immigration more forcefully and not act like a "middle-class party" which has "no problem" with it.
"This is about hunting on the right's turf, that's clear. That's not desirable," said Sonia Krimi, a Tunisia-born LaRem lawmaker.
In Annecy, Lardet, 53, was a vice president with international hotel chain Accor before quitting to start a political career with Macron's party two years ago.
For the mayoral race in Annecy, she said, LaRem is considering backing the incumbent, Jean-Luc Rigaut, a 60-year-old elected in 2007. She said he was part of a political establishment that the party was supposed to break with.
"They (LaRem) came to us, we agreed to quit our jobs to make France evolve with us, people from civil society", said Lardet, speaking in the city's picturesque mediaeval centre. "I am a Republique en Marche lawmaker, but my first party is the people of Annecy."
The mayor did not respond to requests for comment.
Municipal elections in March 2020 will be the biggest domestic electoral test to date for Macron since he won the presidency in 2017.
Stanislas Guerini, LaRem's party head, said the party needed to control mayor's offices throughout France to help push through reforms on the ground. "That's what's missing on the ground, to win the last mile for reforms," he said.
(Editing by Christian Lowe and Gareth Jones)