By Julia Amalia Heyer in Paris
Emmanuel Macron’s election is nothing short of a political upheaval in France. As the youngest president in the country’s history, he has set himself the task of reunifying a divided country. Can his project of political renewal succeed? And can he help save Europe?
It was late on a rainy evening in October and the reception at the Paris residence of Germany’s ambassador to France was well under way when a handful of elegantly dressed 30-somethings bounded up the stairs of the Palais Beauharnais. In front was a young man in a slim-fitting, dark suit over a white shirt, his tie having been left behind in the car. Emmanuel Macron, 37 years old at the time and minister for the economy, industry and digital affairs, wasn’t actually on the guest list that evening. But suddenly, he was there, along with his entourage.
They had been in Brussels the whole day, said his advisor, a delicate woman in a black shift dress. Le Ministre, she said smiling, didn’t want to miss the reception. “He wants to say hello to Monsieur Schäuble.”
And so it came to pass. Not long later, the two could be seen talking animatedly in a corner of the salon — which meant that Wolfgang Schäuble talked and Emmanuel Macron, who is one year younger than Schäuble’s middle daughter, nodded and smiled and didn’t shift his gaze from this powerful older man, the German finance minister.
One-and-a-half years later, in April 2017, shortly before the first round of French presidential elections, the still-influential Schäuble said: “If I were French, I would vote for Macron.” In other words, the French politician’s charm had worked — and it hadn’t yet waned.
The vignette provides but a minor insight into this man who is now set to become the youngest French head of state since Napoleon Bonaparte. At 39 years old, he coincidentally matches the average age in France exactly. But the scene sheds light on how he was able to do something that had never been done before. He bet big and kept his cards concealed for quite some time, maintaining a poker face until the very end. When he finally did flip over his hand, it was unbeatable. And as is the case in many a successful poker hand, luck was on his side.
Macron, though, helped create his own luck. He didn’t obey a single one of the unwritten rules that have governed French politics for over five decades. One of those rules held that you don’t betray your president: the French don’t want a Brutus at the top. Another accepted truth was that French political life was neatly divided between the center-left and the center-right and if you didn’t belong to either camp, your political future was bleak. Particularly if you were a former banker.
Something of a Magician
Macron was aware of all these principles — and he refuted every single one. The first time in his life that he took part in a political campaign, he rose all the way to the presidency. As such, Macron is widely seen as something of a magician — as the man who can save Europe, who stopped the right-wing populists and who, after a terrible year full of Brexit, Trump and the rise of the right, has given hope back to Europeans. Even more surprisingly, he was an independent candidate who does not have the support of a party. He was the head of a movement that had, until recently, looked more like a digitally adept boy scout troop than a political party ready to take over the reins of the government.
Taken together, Macron’s election marks a significant turning point for the France that we had come to know. Macron managed to break through long-established certainties. But his term will also be measured against where the break ends and where the new beginning commences.
Macron could revitalize the office of the presidency, if only because of his youth. He could bring an end to France’s monarchical republic, with its horridly courtly conventions inside the Élysée Palace and the anachronistic exercise of power. But in doing so, will he be able to maintain the authority he will need as president?
Emmanuel Macron is a constructivist: He believes that everybody possesses the ability to do something great. But France is not a startup and many people here shy away from significant change. Can Macron, a man who has — aside from one failed entrance examination — known only success in his life, become the president to all the people of France?
He will have to follow up his election victory with additional miracles. Because even the challenges facing this president are unique. Macron’s extraordinary ability to win people over could help him in this regard. In particular, he has a remarkable bond to older, influential men. They helped pave his way to the top, like outgoing President François Hollande, who mentored and supported him before Macron turned his back on him.
It was a clear, wondrous victory that Macron won last Sunday, with a higher-than-expected 21 million French voters casting their ballots for him. Yet it is also true that 11 million people voted for Marine Le Pen, despite her strangely unhinged campaign. Indeed, Macron’s adversary ultimately seemed as though she wanted to repel voters, as though she, like her father, didn’t actually want to become president at all.
A Sign of Their Disgust
And then there are the millions of registered voters who didn’t bother to go to the polls at all — or who destroyed their ballots as a sign of their disgust. Four million of them chose the latter path, more than ever before. It is a record that demonstrates just how damaged the relationship is between French voters and their political leaders and how deep the mistrust runs. The country, it is clear, is divided. But there is no single chasm that separates them. It is more like something that began to break apart some time ago, and the myriad cracks run through all of France.
Emmanuel Macron must now bring his country together: He must reconcile the right and the left, and must placate those who either didn’t vote or who cast their ballots for Le Pen. And he must close the gap between the French and the European Union — at least that half of the population that no longer finds value in the EU.
The good news is: He might be able to do it. He is convinced of his educational abilities, but the truth is, he is a master of seduction. That is how he won over his supporters, mentors and patrons. He listens, asks follow-up questions and focuses completely on the person he is talking to. His abilities are most effective in small groups.
And his talents even exert their pull on opposing political camps. Former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, a Gaullist, pledged his support to Macron, and ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy was also impressed. It was Sarkozy who discovered Macron 10 years ago — before he went on to spend a few years as an investment banker — and appointed him to his commission to “liberate growth.” It was Macron’s first significant public role, and he excelled even then. Some of Sarkozy’s former cabinet ministers have said in recent days that they are interested in working for the new president.
Macron’s En Marche! Movement — which now must transform itself into a governing party and has thus been renamed République en marche — came out of nowhere, but was nevertheless able to run a solid campaign. It was funded exclusively by donations, with much of the money coming from Macron’s list of contacts he developed during his time at Rothschild. Following the example of politicians in the U.S. and Britain, he held fundraising dinners, including events in London and New York.
“It will be a difficult task, but I will always tell you the truth,” Macron promised on the evening of his election, shortly after he had completed his dignified, solitary stroll through the Louvre courtyard to the strains of Beethoven’s 9th, “Ode to Joy,” the anthem of the European Union — just as he had envisioned. The stage-managing of his victory, loaded with such symbolism, shows that Macron does not intend to eschew the emblems of power, rather he hopes to use them to his advantage. The entrance was more reminiscent of François Mitterrand than of Macron’s predecessor François Hollande.
What He Must Avoid
With En Marche!, Macron may have been able to conquer France with a grassroots movement, but he is fully aware of the stately aura France’s highest political office bestows on its occupants. During the campaign, he repeatedly said he would “preside” rather than govern. Hollande, whose administration — widely seen as catastrophic — he was intimately familiar with, serves as an example he doesn’t want to emulate.
He knows, in other words, what he doesn’t want to be and what he must avoid. He must resist becoming a “normal” president like Hollande, who never impressed the French, neither with his actions nor his presence. Hollande only half-heartedly pursued reforms before subsequently discarding them; he always seemed to be giving speeches in pouring rain, blinking through fogged-up glasses, his tie always somehow strangely askew. Macron, by contrast, can tie a perfect Windsor without once glancing away from his conversation partner or losing his train of thought.
In conjunction with his inauguration on Sunday, Macron will now have to assemble a government, which, given all of the promises he has made, is certain to be a diplomatic tightrope walk. His choice of prime minister will be decisive because it is a chance for Macron to demonstrate that he is serious about renewal. He can’t choose anybody from the old guard, yet his head of government still must be someone who can hit the ground running. In contrast to Hollande, Macron doesn’t want to lose any time. One of the first laws he would like to push through after inauguration is one that will prohibit lawmakers from hiring members of their family. Macron knows what the people want.
“Governing means broadening your circle,” he told his told his closest advisors following his election victory, as though he were preparing them for the possibility that he would choose a conservative as prime minister. It would be a clever move because it would be a recognition of the fact that many French citizens only voted for him to prevent Marine Le Pen from winning. He has pledged that half of his cabinet will be women.
In one month, it will become clear just how much leeway Emmanuel Macron will have when it comes to implementing his agenda. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for June 11 and 18 and the reforms he envisions — to the labor market or education system — can only be realized with a parliamentary majority.
The coming elections, though, highlight yet another novelty: A president who does not come from any of the established parties hoping to achieve a majority with a brand new political movement. En Marche! has to present candidates for 577 electoral districts. And choosing them will also be a tightrope walk: Macron wants to find fresh candidates for half of the seats in the hopes of avoiding a parliament containing the same people as before, just under a different label. His reasoning is clear: The image of professional politicians in France is extremely poor.
Macron’s Adversaries and Skeptics
Macron and his credibility are under the microscope, as he well knows. In part, that is because he is a child of the system on which he has now declared war.
Last Wednesday, for example, almost as though he were trying to set an example, he rejected offers from his former boss, ex-Prime Minister Manuel Valls, to campaign on his behalf. Valls is the man who once promoted Macron to the French cabinet — and he had announced that he intended to run for En Marche! in his electoral district in southern Paris. But Macron rebuffed him, leading some to refer to the newly elected president as “the killer” on Twitter. Macron may stand for reconciliation, but he is also adept at the art of humiliation.
Macron wants parliamentary candidates who are full of fresh ideas. He hopes that the June votes will serve as a legitimation of his election to the presidency by granting him a mandate to do all that he has promised to do. He faces the task of bringing the new and the old together, a coexistence that has to be successful if France wants to truly change and break free of its current stasis and depression.
The project will be made more difficult by the fact that bipartisanship is not generally counted among France’s many virtues. Governing coalitions in the country are referred to as “cohabitation” and essentially seen as a way to keep the opposition on a short leash. That, though, is the scenario the center-right is hoping for — even as they, in their desperate attempts to cling to the benefits political office bestows upon them, seem not unlike those cartoon figures who run off a cliff and don’t even notice that there is no longer any ground under their feet. If the conservatives win a majority in the coming parliamentary elections, which cannot be ruled out, many of the young president’s plans would likely have to be discarded — because the center-right would do all they could to thwart him.
And there are others who stand in opposition to Macron as well. The country’s labor unions are among them. Even though they don’t represent as many workers as they do in Germany, they can still launch damaging general strikes at any time. And Macron represents everything the unions hate: a former banker who wants to reform the country’s welfare system, in part by pushing through hated labor market reforms — by presidential decree if he has to.
The extreme left-wing politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who received almost 8 million votes in the first round of the election, has likewise called on his supporters to resist Macron’s plans.
Throwing Certainties Overboard
And Marine Le Pen, the election runner-up, has spoken darkly of a strong opposition, though she must first turn her attentions to her own party. Just as in the rest of France, nothing in the Front National is as it was just a few weeks ago. The majority of voters in six of the 11 municipalities governed by Front National cast their ballots for Macron. Since then criticism has rained down on Le Pen and, in particular, her deputy Florian Philippot, despite the Front National having achieved its best-ever result in a presidential election.
Making things even worse for Front National, Marine’s niece Marion announced this week that she is “temporarily” withdrawing from politics to focus on raising her young daughter. Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, 27, was considered among right-wing conservatives as a shining hope for the future.
Such is the situation following this election, in which established certainties were thrown overboard along with much of the erstwhile political system. Whereas before, two parties passed power back and forth among themselves, the country now has four blocks of almost equal size. Plus an additional block of people who didn’t vote at all.
On the Monday following the election, Christophe Guilluy was sitting in a café on Place de la République and offering his analysis of the historical results. Guilluy, an angular man in his early 50s, is a geographer — and the man who likely exerted considerable influence on the campaign strategies of both Macron and Le Pen. He is the originator of the theory that France is splitting in two. His essay is titled “la France périphérique,” and it is a meticulous profile of the country as it stands today. In the piece, Guilluy describes how rural areas have become increasingly alienated from France’s urban centers and how they have developed in opposition to one another, such that geographic segregation has ultimately developed into societal rupture.
It is a theory that both Macron and Le Pen agree with, and one reflected in French voting patterns. It is interesting, Guilluy says, how clearly these social, cultural and geographic breaks were exposed in this election. “All of these rifts that run through France are visible politically. Now, politics must be reshaped,” he says. Categories such as right and left no longer apply. As if to follow the argument to its logical conclusion, he says that France is more atomized than it is split. He says that Macron’s strength is that he was the first to have understood as much.
“This time Macron won, but next time it might be Le Pen or a different populist,” Guilluy says. The French, he says, have long moved like tectonic plates, with society constantly shifting from one side to the other. “Everything could capsize at any time,” he says. “The middle class, the glue of every society, is in the process of disappearing,” which, he says, is a consequence of globalization. That, he believes, is the challenge facing Emmanuel Macron: ensuring that the weak can once again benefit from France’s prosperity so that they don’t radicalize further.
Making Up for the Failures of His Predecessors
That is something that Macron expects of himself as well. “I will create harmony in France once again,” he said during his speech at the Louvre. He also said the same to SPIEGEL in an interview shortly before the election. The cities, he said, have been the winners, but there is also the France on the periphery, which has self-doubts. “We need to bring these two parts back together. Key to this is our middle class — they form the base of our democracy,” he said.
Time is of the essence. He must now make up for the failures of his predecessors. Both Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande failed to sufficiently follow through on their grand plans. Their penchant for empty words didn’t just disappoint the French, it alienated them — from themselves, from politics and also from Europe.
Macron’s predecessors constantly invoked their country’s grand past, its historical legacy, but in doing so, they oddly lost sight of the present and its growing problems. Macron has promised that he will do “everything in the next five years so that there is no longer any reason to vote for extremist parties.” It is a vastly ambitious challenge.
Even before he strode up to the stage that had been set up for him on the evening of his election victory, and before thanking the cheering crowd for his victory, Macron spoke on the phone with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who offered her congratulations. When he heads for Berlin next week, he will explain to her what he has planned for his country. And they will also discuss how things should proceed in Europe. Sources among his staff say that he intends to work together with her and not in opposition. In contrast to Hollande five years ago, Macron did not pose as an adversary to Germany during the campaign nor did he seek to stoke resentment during the hunt for votes. In this French campaign, it was Macron’s opponents who took that route.
“Europe must protect itself better, that is what Macron wants to achieve,” says one of his confidants. “But for him, being pro-European doesn’t mean just putting his hands in his lap and simply waiting.”
It doesn’t speak well for Europe that many have already ducked into the trenches and begun firing away at the political newcomer, particularly when the desire for change is an absolute necessity. But it looks as though many in Brussels have already forgotten that this election could have turned out differently. Already, it is being said that Macron is in favor of controversial “Eurobonds,” although such a demand can be found nowhere in his policy platforms. “We need instruments that allow us to react to crises within the eurozone,” is what one hears from his staff.
A Wary Brussels Establishment
His reform ideas for Europe are likewise just as vague for the time being. When he speaks of a eurozone budget or of a joint finance minister, it sounds less like a proposal than like the results of a brainstorming session over how to prepare European institutions for the future. But even to these ideas, the reaction of the Brussels establishment has been wary.
Macron is well aware of the sensitivities of France’s European partners and has repeatedly said that France must first “do its job” before trust between Berlin and Paris can be restored. “It’s now our duty to finally follow through with reforms,” he told SPIEGEL in the March interview. He has also said he sees adherence to EU budget deficit rules is a “precondition” for France’s renewal and for winning back German trust. The problem, though, is that his predecessors have all said the same thing.
What is clear, however, is that Macron looks to Germany with curiosity and interest and that, throughout the brutal campaign and before, he consistently demonstrated support for Europe. Indeed, the generational change that is now taking place in France could be interpreted as an opportunity.
Perhaps a younger political leader is best able to put a stop to the symptoms of fatigue that are currently pervasive in Europe. Because what is true of France, is also true of Brussels: New impulses are badly needed. And for Emmanuel Macron, who was born in 1977, the EU isn’t a sputtering experiment, but rather the only reality he has ever known. The same is true for most of those he surrounds himself with — and with whom he won the election.
With the exception of Jean Pisani-Ferry, the 65-year-old former head of the think tank Bruegel who functions as Macron’s chief economic advisor, all those within the new president’s inner circle are around 40 years of age at the oldest, with many of them quite a bit younger than that. His chief campaign strategist Ismael Emelien, who was a key figure in the launch of En Marche!, is just 30 years old.
Initially, after he left his advisor post in the Élysée, Macron had intended to found a startup with Emelien and Julien Denormandie, a 36-year-old engineer who is now in charge of party organization for République en marche. Macron’s appointment to economy minister put an end to those plans. The man in charge of preparing Macron’s movement for the parliamentary elections and maintaining contact with representatives and candidates in the electoral districts is Stéphane Séjourné, 32. Sylvain Fort, an opera fan who graduated from the École normale supérieure, is his communications adviser. He is 45.
All of them share a preference for slim-cut, perfectly tailored suits. Benjamin Griveaux, 39, relates another characteristic they all have in common: “We are all children of the provinces and have gone to good universities. But none of us comes from the Paris upper classes.”
A camera team spent half a year following the Macron team — all the way up to the happy ending last Sunday. The resulting documentary, “Behind the Scenes of a Campaign,” was broadcast the very next day. It shows how much fun politics can be away from the established party structures — and how difficult it is to do such a thing.
In the film, just as in real life, his wife Brigitte is omnipresent. There is likely nobody left who isn’t familiar with her story and where she comes from. She was a high school teacher of Macron’s in Amiens, 24 years his senior. They got to know each other when they spent weeks rewriting a play together. He was just 17 when he promised to marry her — later.
He fulfilled his promise in 2007 and now, Brigitte Macron is France’s Première dame. She is cordial, elegant and funny. Shortly before her husband won the election, she said: “It would be best if Emmanuel became president now. Imagine how I will look in 2022!” With the Macrons, a couple is moving into Élysée Palace that could hardly be tighter — something that the French are no longer used to. One recalls the stiff façade maintained by the Chiracs, who lived in separate apartments, followed by the divorces and romantic escapades of Sarkozy and Hollande.
When Emmanuel Macron speaks of his wife, he says things like: “Without Brigitte, I wouldn’t be me.” And: “Brigitte is a bit of me, and vice versa.”
The story of Macron’s political rise is mirrored by his relationship — neither is entirely conventional and both his ambitions and his marriage are viewed with some skepticism. Is such a “not entirely normal” — as he once put it — relationship seemly? And can it endure? Together, the two answered their skeptics such that ultimately, nobody was surprised any longer by the fact that Brigitte was always at his side straightening his tie or even autographing copies of his book, always with a laugh. “I didn’t write it,” she would call out when, at some appearance or another, a line of admirers suddenly appeared in front of her.
Emmanuel Macron, who will turn 40 in December, is fond of quoting the French romantic Alfred de Musset: “I came too late into a world too old.” Now, walking onto the stage of global politics as the youngest-ever president of France, it is up to Macron to prove otherwise.