How Emmanuel Macron charmed a nation

Macron sold himself as a kind of human antidepressant pill, the incarnation of optimistic renewal. But who is he really?

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In 2012, Sophie Pedder climbed a back staircase in the Élysée Palace (no lift in this wing) to visit François Hollande’s 34-year-old economic adviser. Like almost everyone who meets Emmanuel Macron, she was charmed. He gives every conversational partner “the uncanny impression, however untrue, that just for that stretch of time he had nowhere else more important to be”. Afterwards, he told her, “Come back whenever you like.” She did.

Every journalist dreams of having a backstage source who becomes president. For this first-rate biography – which broadens into a portrait of contemporary France – Pedder, the Economist’s veteran bureau chief in Paris, has plundered notebooks filled with Macron interviews. Revolution Française offers the best answer in English so far to two big questions: who is this man? And how will he change his country?

Macron isn’t a product of the self-reproducing French elite, rather, he comes from the provincial bourgeoisie. He grew up in a two-storey red-brick terraced house in the northern town of Amiens in the Somme. (One great-grandfather, George Robertson, was a butcher from Bristol who had hung on after the First World War.)

Macron’s father was a neurologist, his mother a doctor, but his biggest childhood influence was his grandmother, Manette. The first person in her family to stay at school beyond 15, she ended up a headmistress. She taught her grandson to read aged five and in his telling spent “entire days” reading to him from Molière, Racine and François Mauriac. Manette shaped his self-image as an extraordinary person who could do anything. He once asked his parents if he could live with her.

He seems to have grown apart from his parents after falling in love, aged 16, with his married 40-year-old drama teacher, Madame Auzière. His parents disapproved, and the budding liaison became a small-town scandal, but Macron persisted. The most brilliant student in any subject at his Jesuit lycée, and precociously mature, he naturally wanted to shack up with an intelligent adult.

His parents packed him off as a boarder to the state lycée that serves the Parisian establishment, Henri-IV. Only at this point did he join the French elite, while at weekends continuing to court Mme Auzière,
who is today Brigitte Macron. The relationship is key to understanding Macron: he doesn’t care about conventions or other people’s disapproval. He is a transgressor who does what he wants without self-doubt. He told the novelist Emmanuel Carrère: “I’m claustrophobic about life. I can’t stand being shut in, I have to get out, that’s why I can’t have a normal life. Deep down, my flaw is no doubt that I don’t love normal life.”

Macron can live multiple lives at once. He reputedly only needs four hours’ sleep, doesn’t have children, and works unusually fast. This probably buys him seven or eight more productive hours a day than a normal person. One reason he charms in conversation is that he has time and isn’t tired.

For a while he followed multiple tracks: he studied philosophy, adopting the undogmatic philosopher Paul Ricoeur (64 years his senior) as his first of many older mentors, but also sailed through the École Nationale d’Administration, the training ground of the French technocratic and political elite. Graduating near the top of his class, he joined the finance ministry’s Inspection Générale des Finances – an elite within the French elite.

He had another brief meteoric career as an investment banker with Rothschild, earning about €1m for helping negotiate Nestlé’s purchase of Pfizer’s baby-food business for $11.8bn. Then in 2012, one of his mentors recommended him to a pal, François Hollande, the freshly elected president.

Macron’s four years at Hollande’s side gave him a masterclass in how not to be president. Like most recent French politicians, Hollande hadn’t dared tell voters that the country needed reform. The economy had been stagnating since the early 2000s. By 2016, no other country spent a greater slice of its gross domestic product on social, health and pension programmes. France’s system of life-long labour contracts favoured the mostly older workers who had them, but deterred companies from hiring the young or the legions of unemployed.


Brigitte and Emmanuel Macron

Hollande glossed over all this in his election campaign. Much of French politics pre-Macron consisted of striking empty poses: Nicolas Sarkozy crusaded against the burqa, which was worn by 0.04 per cent of French Muslims, and Hollande slapped a 75 per cent tax on the very few French households with incomes over €1m. The tax was quickly ruled unconstitutional.

France doddered on as before, protecting organised interest groups (union members, notaries, pharmacists, the political class itself) while neglecting outsiders. Halfway through his presidency, Hollande suddenly tried liberal reforms, for which he had no mandate. Voters weren’t impressed. In 2014 Macron told Pedder, “Our problem was that we didn’t abolish Clause Four before the election,” referring to Tony Blair’s ditching of the Labour Party’s pledge to nationalise industry.

Hollande, who looked like a fat, small-town notary and aspired to be a “normal president”, didn’t do displays of grandeur. That cost him, because the French expect their president to embody France (whereas the British prime minister is meant to be a mere functionary). Hollande also wasted endless hours gossiping with journalists (he had dreamed of becoming a columnist).

In 2014 Macron quit as Hollande’s aide. He considered starting an educational non-profit organisation, and accepted a visiting fellowship at the London School of Economics. But that August, aged 36, he agreed to become Hollande’s economics minister. It was an experience that showed him how France could be reformed. In early 2015, he proposed the Loi Macron, a fairly piddling set of reforms, chiefly allowing for freer opening times for shops and the legalisation of coach travel between cities. This was radical enough by French standards to consume 111 hours of parliamentary debate: Macron himself spent 18 hours addressing parliament. But the right couldn’t vote for a socialist government’s law, and the Socialist Party’s far left wouldn’t. The government then used emergency decrees to push the bill through.

Macron played the piano until 3am to calm himself down. But the horror show taught him something: public opinion and most individual MPs liked his bill, even if the parties made it a partisan issue. Months later, he told Pedder: “We need to put together two-thirds of the Socialist Party, all the centrists, and part of the centre-right. That would give us a pro-European market-friendly majority in favour of modernising the social model.” Pedder didn’t realise it then, but he had dreamed up En Marche.

Macron serially charms powerful older men, then discards them. Hollande was an easy mark. Behind the president’s back, Macron and other young male technocrats – his natural peer group – plotted a new movement. At first they considered making it a foundation, or a think tank, but it became a new political party.

The leadership recruited fed-up ordinary people around France, who, flying in the face of French electioneering tradition, went door to door campaigning. Macron sold himself as a kind of human antidepressant pill, the incarnation of optimistic renewal. He was a revolutionary from outside politics, but also a technocrat – “the insider’s outsider”, in Pedder’s words, leading “a political insurgency without pitchforks or pikes”. That made him safe enough for angry voters to elect. Unlike Hollande, he campaigned on a manifesto that spelled out his planned reforms. He won, and a month later, En Marche gained a parliamentary majority. He had a mandate.

Macron saved France from political doom. When last year’s election campaign began, French voters – reeling from large-scale terrorist attacks – were probably more disaffected and Eurosceptic than the British. Their choice of candidates was dismaying. Had Macron not run, the centre right’s François Fillon would probably have been elected president even after accusations emerged that he had paid his Welsh wife Penelope and two of their children nearly €1m from the parliamentary payroll, with no evidence that Penelope had a meaningful job. He had also accepted tailored suits worth €13,000 from a lawyer linked to African leaders.

A discredited figure becoming president would have been a gift to the populists. And had the French rejected Fillon, both candidates in the presidential run-off would probably have been anti-European extremists, the Front National’s Marine Le Pen and the far left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon. As it was, about half the voters in the first round chose extremist parties. Populism could easily have won in France, as it has in Britain and Italy. Macron’s task is to banish that prospect before the next election, in 2022.

Macron seemed to know from day one exactly how he wanted to be president. Part of the plan was grand gestures, starting with his lone spotlit walk across the Louvre’s courtyard to assume office. In his first three months in the job, his personal make-up artist billed him €26,000. His self-proclaimed “Jupiterian” style is much-mocked, and probably reveals something disturbing about him, but he is offering a narrative of French grandeur to rival Le Pen’s.

Like Britain, France has now embarked on a grand project to remake itself, with the difference that Macron’s is reality-based. Foreigners often ask whether he can reform France. In fact, he already has.

En Marche’s new MPs – many of them the provincial volunteers of 2016 – know that they only sit in parliament thanks to him. They are voting through his manifesto. Almost the first law that parliament passed was on the “moralisation of politics”. This banned MPs from hiring relatives à la Fillon, spending without providing invoices, or moonlighting as consultants. It was an essential step towards restoring trust in politics. Weeks later, parliament approved the sort of labour-market reforms that French governments hadn’t even dared try since 1995, when Alain Juppé’s attempt faltered amid waves of strikes.

Macron has given employers more freedom to hire and fire workers. They no longer risk being ordered by a court to pay unlimited sums – €200,000, say – if an employee sues successfully for wrongful dismissal. The hope is that companies will become less scared to recruit.

Most trade unions accepted the reforms. The street has remained fairly quiet. This spring’s strike by workers of the state-owned railway SNCF seems to be losing impetus. The modest economic upturn that began in Hollande’s final year continues.

Macron has also cut French corporation tax, and abolished the wealth tax. Understandably, he’s often derided as the président des riches (president of the rich). It’s probably not what he intends to be. He aspires to increasing hiring and investment: his ideal is Nordic rather than Thatcherite. However, the immediate effect of Macronism will probably be to make the rich richer.

His approval ratings have slipped recently to 40 per cent, but helpfully for Macron, France’s political climate has cooled down. Brexit has done him a favour. When your neighbour jumps off a cliff you become more cautious yourself. The betting must be that in 2022 Macron’s base of well-off, well-educated, pro-globalisation French metropolitans helps him to the largest share of the vote in a splintered field.

But there are other, worrying scenarios. Pedder notes the disconcerting resemblance between Macron and Tony Blair. Macron has read Anthony Giddens, and is friendly with Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, but the similarities go beyond policy.

Like Blair, he’s a pragmatist, a born actor, who believes he can charm anyone, even a dangerous US president. Like Blair, Macron has learned from life that everything he touches will turn to gold. Blair, at his zenith, decided he could even remake Iraq. Pedder can imagine a similar madness seizing Macron: “Hubris could still get the better of him.”

Occasionally Pedder’s book shades into hagiography (Macron is, after all, the Economist’s dream president), but overall, this is a model biography by a writer who knows and loves France. 

Simon Kuper is an FT columnist based in Paris

Revolution Française: Emmanuel Macron and the Quest to Reinvent a Nation
Sophie Pedder
Bloomsbury Continuum, 288pp, £25

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Germany, alone