The Macron moment
It’s 8 o’clock on a chilly night in Brussels’ Gare du Midi, and Emmanuel Macron is smiling patiently at a man who has a plan to create 5 million jobs.
The French economy minister has spent the day traveling: in the north of France to cheer up French tech entrepreneurs, then in Brussels to argue in favor of anti-dumping tariffs on Chinese steel imports. He has missed the 7:14 p.m. train back to Paris, and failed to get a beer at Sam’s Café. Two members of his staff have gone to buy sweets at the Belgian Chocolate House while they wait for another train home.
Macron listens to the man, who seems a bit lost and complains in blurred French that he didn’t get any reply to the letter he sent to the French ministry pitching his job-creation plan. “We were wrong not to reply,” Macron says kindly. He instructs an aide to “look into it.”
Then it’s the rush off to the platform, so as not to miss the next train home.
Being the French economy minister these days means fielding a lot of unsolicited advice — even from a Brussels vagrant — on how to pull France out of its slump. The ruling Socialist Party seems mostly intent on telling Macron what not to do, and what not to say.
In 18 months on the job, Macron has been the favorite target of party apparatchiks who paint him as a free-market zealot in Socialist clothes. He has exasperated his cabinet colleagues with statements on themes that go way beyond his own remit, and parted ways with former political ally Manuel Valls, France’s dour prime minister, on the best response to terrorism.
Professional politicians and pundits have sneered at Macron’s “inexperience” and what they deem his “gaffes,” such as calling for an overhaul of the 35-hour week or lower unemployment benefits.
“He came to the Socialist party for intellectual reasons. He came to politics through philosophy” — Pascal Lamy, the former European commissioner and World Trade Organization director
He has kept talking, defying calls from Valls and others to keep silent. Through it all, he remains at the top of France’s popularity ratings, making him the man of the moment in the nation’s politics, who may or may not be positioning himself to run for the presidency one day, if not in next year’s elections.
Now Macron has raised the stakes even further by launching En Marche (“Forward”), a political “movement” he says is not a real “party” — or at least not yet. He also hasn’t minced words in pouring scorn on traditional parties — starting with the Socialists — which he sees as out of touch and prisoners of their 20th century reflexes.
The launch of his party-in-waiting means one thing: Macron is not a temp worker in politics. It is clear from talking with his friends and associates, and spending time with him on the road, that he badly wants to be president. But he also believes that politics shouldn’t be a “regulated profession” reserved for civil servants — long the French model — and he is intent on keeping his options open.
What Macron wants
He brushes off questions about whether he’ll be a presidential candidate next year, saying it is not his “priority” to think about it. It also doesn’t make make a lot of sense for him to declare as long as no one knows whether his mentor François Hollande will run for another term.
Macron has long tried to project the detached image of a man whose life doesn’t depend on politics, who would always be able and ready to do something else if he couldn’t achieve what he set out to do. That stance becomes less credible with the launching of En Marche.
“Now he has one foot stuck in the political mud for some time,” says Marc Ferracci, one of Macron’s best friends from his student days, now an economist teaching at Panthéon-Assas University in Paris.
So 2022 might be the real date to watch, and Macron doesn’t have to confirm or deny it. The whole French political system is designed to orient talents towards the presidency. For Macron, staying in politics means that he wants the job. In the meantime, he can build up his movement and try to play a role by, for example, endorsing candidates in the 2017 parliamentary election that will follow the presidential vote by a few weeks.
“I knew about the heat when I accepted to come and work for François Hollande. “I can’t complain now.”
Whatever Hollande decides for next year, Macron’s road to the presidency will be an arduous one.
Ever since his first steps into active politics in August 2014, Macron has cut an intriguing figure against the French political tradition. It’s not so much the passion he has shown for carrying the torch of economic reform in a French Socialist government. Others have tried — from Finance Minister Jacques Delors in the early 1980s to Prime Minister Michel Rocard 10 years later, or even Dominique Strauss-Kahn as finance minister in the late ’90s. All were, at times the targets of old-left ire and vicious attacks, and accused of near-treason of Socialist ideals.
What makes Macron different is his youth — he’s 38 — his political inexperience, and the “I-don’t-care-what-you-think” attitude that exasperates the adversaries he has made in his own camp. Whether he can translate his overall popularity into actual political strength will be his challenge with En Marche.
Even back in February, in an interview with Macron on the train back from that Brussels trip, it was easy to see what he was aiming at and the obstacles he would face to get there. He feels French politics is on the verge of a fundamental shift as old-style political parties he considers discredited are coming to the end of their course. He sees the Socialist Party in danger of “Corbynization” with old dogmas ready to take over again, and the mainstream conservative party under Nicolas Sarkozy getting closer to the far-right National Front. Hence the opening he sees for a movement that would support “radical” (the word he tends to use, over and over again) reforms to modernize France — starting with the economy.
So far, so good — at least for the intentions. Coming from any other politician, this would look like the umpteenth attempt to revive the political center — after all previous ones petered out. What sets Macron apart is not so much the ideas — what he says would sound banal in other European democracies. Nor is it his attempt to overcome the left/right divide — which 20 years ago was called “triangulation” in Tony Blair’s U.K. and Bill Clinton’s U.S.. What’s intriguing is his deliberate refusal to play the politics game the way it has been played in France for decades. Which, of course, could be just another attempt to become the ultimate player.
His biography is a reflection of his politics: an odd mix of conventional upbringing with the occasional bout of originality. The son of doctors in Amiens, a town 120 kilometers north of Paris, Macron graduated at the top of his class from the French government-elite factory, École Nationale d’Administration. He didn’t get there through the usual channels, though, and spent a couple of years earning a philosophy degree, during which he served as an assistant to acclaimed French philosopher Paul Ricaur.
Macron was sent to Paris to complete high school because his parents wanted to keep him away from his French teacher, 19 years his senior, with whom he had become infatuated. That didn’t work: The couple resumed seeing each other after Macron graduated, and are now married. That allows Macron, on his En Marche website, to talk about his “seven grandchildren” — his wife’s, through the three children she had from a former marriage.
Unlike quite a few current or past Socialist leaders, such as former President François Mitterrand, or his then-youthful Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, more recently France’s foreign minister, there is no denying that Macron chose the left as his political camp early on. Ferracci remembers the conversations they had when studying together at the turn of the century. “We talked about themes like inequality, how to redefine the general interest, fairness in the system,” he says. For his philosophy degree, Macron chose Étienne Balibar, one of the country’s best-known Marxist philosophers, as his thesis adviser.
Macron attributes his attraction to the left to the role played in his education by his grandmother, a school principal, with whom he stayed when he was in Paris. Today he says that the left versus right divide doesn’t mean much, but also says he “unashamedly” belongs to a Socialist government.
“For him, being on the left means believing in the transforming power of politics,” says Ismaël Emelien, who is in charge of communication on Macron’s economy ministry staff.
“He came to the Socialist party for intellectual reasons, and was quite leftist at first,” says Pascal Lamy, the former European commissioner and World Trade Organization director, who has known Macron for more than 10 years. “He came to politics through philosophy, that’s his background.”
Some think Macron overplays the intellectual-lost-in-politics side of his personality, but it also seems to come to him naturally. In the course of a few days earlier this year, he name-checked Immanuel Kant and Thomas Hobbes to illustrate the French-German divide (in an interview with POLITICO), French historian Patrick Boucheron (in an address to small businessmen), philosopher Michel Foucault (at a meeting with the media) and surrealist poet André Breton (a speech to tech entrepreneurs). He manages to make it sound unaffected, but you wonder how long it will be before some stand-up comic picks up the trait.
Path to power
After dabbling with French left-leaning think tanks, Macron met Hollande through friends in 2006 and started working with him four years later. Meanwhile he had joined Rothschild, the advisory bank — a move that eventually made him a millionaire but now provides fodder for the far left and part of the Socialist Party to sneer at the “banker” who won’t ever feel real people’s pain.
Ferracci remembers that his choice at the time surprised some of his friends. “Tantamount for him was financial independence. That was key. We talked about it, some of us may have told him that it might be a drag on a future political career, but he wanted independence and freedom.”
He didn’t lose contact with Hollande, and during the 2012 presidential campaign started coordinating the work of a group of economists who wrote papers for the Socialist candidate. Hollande, once elected, made Macron his top economic adviser, and a deputy chief of staff.
Four years later Macron is unsparing in his assessment of Hollande’s then-platform and the way it evolved. His goal, he told me, is that the same mistakes — he used a stronger word — aren’t repeated next year. When Hollande, in the heat of the campaign, made the surprise announcement that he wanted to tax income above €1 million a year at a 75 percent rate, Macron was heard to quip: “It’s Cuba, without the sun.”
After two years serving Hollande at the Elysée Palace, Macron let it be known that he was ready for a cabinet job. He thought he could aim for the budget ministry when the president sacked his first prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, in March 2014. But Hollande begged to differ. To be a minister, he told his adviser, you first have to get elected somewhere. Pay your dues, go out, campaign and shake hands, do the work all of us have done to get there. Macron then decided to go back to the private sector.
This time he wanted to try the start-up experience, and traveled to Silicon Valley to test the waters. Emelien, who was with him at the time, says they still want to keep some confidentiality on what the project was exactly — “because you never know, we might want to come back to it at some point.”
There seems to be little doubt about the fact that in early 2014, Macron thought he had turned the page on politics. “He was totally involved in his start-up, we had lunch and he even showed me his new company’s logo,” remembers Ferracci. “To be turned down by Hollande was tough for him, and he also wanted to leave the Elysée because he had enough of advocating things with little results,” says one of his former mentors.
Today, Macron only says he thought he had done all that he could possibly do — in advising a president whose rapport with economics has always been distant at best. In June 2014, the French presidency announced that Macron was leaving “for personal endeavors in the fields of research and education.”
Two months later, Macron was on his bike on the North Sea coast near Le Touquet when Hollande’s chief of staff called to tell him the president had offered him the economy ministry. Macron asked for a couple of hours — the time to consult with his wife — before accepting. His predecessor, Arnaud Montebourg, had been sacked for opposing Hollande’s new-found fiscal orthodoxy and so-called “supply shock.” Suddenly the requirement to hold elective office before becoming a minister didn’t seem that important, after all.
‘He knows he owes me’
The tone was set on the first day, at the formal ceremony when Macron took over from Montebourg and quoted Oscar Wilde to him: “Whenever people agree with me, I always feel I must be wrong.” Macron told his predecessor: “In that respect, you’ve reassured me daily.”
Since then, Macron has been the Energizer bunny of French politics, drumming up support for French reforms and making a show of trampling on Socialist orthodoxy. One member of his vast network of friends remembers advising him to aim for the economy ministry, “because it’s the only one where you have the bird’s-eye view. You can talk about anything.” Saying that Macron has followed the advice would be an understatement.
He has opined on the eurozone governance — writing a couple of unsolicited papers with his German counterpart Sigmar Gabriel, to the annoyance of French Finance Minister Michel Sapin. Ten days after the November 13 attacks, Macron also opined on “French society’s responsibility” in nurturing Islamist radicals — talking about “the fertile ground on which terrorists have grown violence, mistrust.” “I don’t understand what he’s talking about,” the leader of the French Socialist Party immediately replied. More recently, Macron reiterated his view that the malaise of French banlieues comes from the lack of hope, and economic opportunities, irking the prime minister. “When you start to explain, you’re beginning to excuse,” Manuel Valls retorted.
Closer to his home turf — reforms and the economy — Macron’s relentless attacks on the left’s most sacred cows have turned him into a pariah for some Socialist leaders. On a recent trip through the north of France, Lille Mayor Martine Aubry, the architect of the 35-hour week and guardian of the old left’s flame, didn’t even respond to a Macron staff query to come and meet her as he was passing through town.
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, from the same wing of the Socialist party, has also refused to talk with him about the implementation of the law he championed allowing the opening of stores on Sundays.
Macron seems impervious to the slights. A lot of this comes from the self-assurance of someone who knows he can always quit whenever he wants. In the meantime, he seems to enjoy the fight. “I knew about the heat when I accepted to come and work for François Hollande,” he says. “I can’t complain now.”
Macron could not have survived without the continued support of his mentor. Some can’t understand the French president’s tolerance of his minister’s persistent refusal to play by the accepted rules, and willingness to keep irking the left of the party that Hollande needs to win reelection. On the other hand, his popularity also means that he can work for Hollande, helping attract and keep the crucial centrist votes.
Even after Macron launched En Marche, a move immediately criticised by Socialist leaders and government ministers, Hollande approved: “A minister decides to engage in dialogue with citizens, that is called politics,” he said. Macron also saw the subliminal message in the presidential blessing: “Welcome to politics, Emmanuel. Now you must play the game.”
A week later, Hollande asked Macron to play “within the team” and “under his authority.”
“He knows what he owes me,” the president said of his former adviser.
Macron doesn’t seem to feel he owes anyone anything. Within days, he was declining to say whether he wanted Hollande to run again.