PARIS — He wanted to be a writer. He'll be president of the French Republic instead — what a tale to tell! The story of a young advisor to the king who, taken aback by his master's powerlessness, somehow decides to replace him and try and conquer the Elysée palace, alone against the world, overcoming every obstacle along the way.
This improbable narrative, almost of epic proportions, is one that Emmanuel Macron nevertheless took great care to write, tenaciously, until making it to the chapter that began Sunday at 8 p.m. as he was elected as the eighth president of the Fifth Republic, the youngest ever at age 39.
"There are moments when History suddenly speeds up, and I believe we're living through one such moment," Macron said back in March. "The past five years have been marked by terrorism, the acceleration of crucial transitions in the economy and technology, of the transformation of our democracies too. In these times when everything accelerates, trajectories like mine are possible."
Emmanuel Macron is not one to be fooled, especially not by the circumstances that led him to where he is today, starting with those that brought him to politics in the first place.
It all began with a countryside political fiasco organized in August 2014 in the small eastern town of Frangy-en-Bresse. The then Economy Minister Arnaud Montebourg was appearing at the local annual Rose Festival, along with then Education Minister Benoît Hamon [who went on to officially represent the outgoing Socialist Party in the just concluded presidential election]. Montebourg used the occasion to denounce François Hollande's economic policy, provoking his own boss by offering him wine specially made for the occasion, the "recovery cuvée." The gesture did not go down well at all with the head of state, who decided to kick both Montebourg and Hamon out of the government.
At that moment, Macron had been out riding his bike, on holiday in the northern town of Le Touquet, where he has a second home. His phone rang — it was President Hollande calling to offer him Montebourg's job. Macron only asked one question: "Will I be able to make reforms?" The president swore he would, so he accepted.
The decision was made only after consulting with his wife Brigitte — "the one without whom I'd be nothing," he says — 24 years his senior, and his former high school drama teacher. The story is already improbable enough in itself, but it is crucial to understanding Macron's personality and determination, as well as Brigitte's place and role at his side. Just out of his teenage years, he faced everything with her: the scandal, the rumors, the sarcasm, the hearsay.
Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron on May 7 — Photo: Michael Kappeler/DPA/ZUMA
So much so that the toughness of the French presidential campaign, with its low blows and fake news, made them laugh, even if it's sometimes a bit of a forced laughter. "After everything we've been through ..." Brigitte Macron says with a sigh, minimizing the campaign's difficulties. Still, she didn't expect to end up at the Elysée palace back when she gave her approval to her husband's becoming Economy Minister, however convinced she was that he would go far. "When he sets his mind to something, he always gives his all," she had said at the time.
So Macron became Economy Minister. A month earlier, he was still the president's deputy secretary-general, which started to feel like a dead end to him. Hollande had refused to appoint him as Secretary of State for the Budget, the position he was aiming for. Too young, too inexperienced, not familiar enough with the ins and outs of the Socialist Party.
But in the urgency of the political crisis facing him in this late summer of 2014, Hollande, who'd campaigned two years earlier by calling the world of finance his "veritable adversary," found himself forced to appoint Macron — a former Rothschild banker — as his new Economy Minister. The move thus provided the rebels inside the Socialist Party [led by Montebourg and Hamon], who see money as a sort of absolute evil, a perfect angle of attack.
The only goal was not to miss out on life
Some among France's most influential advisors (like political advisers Jacques Attali or Alain Minc) had long suggested that Macron had what it takes to be president. But unlike almost all of his predecessors, Macron never claimed to have always wanted to be president. As a child, he would spend more time reading than thinking about any future career, influenced by his grandmother: a former teacher, with whom he would spend all his Wednesdays and Saturdays while his parents, both doctors, worked. The young Macron's only goal was not to miss out on life. He seized every opportunity as they came, as his interests evolved over the years: drama, literature, philosophy, economy, finance, politics ...
From the Bercy headquarters of the economy ministry, Macron quickly shot to fame. Thanks to the unorthodox couple he makes with Brigitte, he found himself propelled to the front pages of the celebrity press. And in the lower house of parliament, the Assemblée Nationale, he started to defend a key measure, dubbed the "Macron law," which would aim to liberalize key parts of the economy and labor market to spur innovation, what would be later categorized as the "uberization" of the economy. That's where the still vague concept of "Macronism" first appeared: a dash of right-wing, a pinch of left-wing, a bit of pure centrism, nevermind the dosage so long as it works, more or less. One symbol of that law were the "Macron buses": One sector of the economy opened up, with more competition and therefore more risk for employees, but compensated by lower costs for customers. In the end, more equality for more people. The French were getting to know Emmanuel Macron, and beginning to like him.
Photo: Official Facebook page
It was early 2015 and the economy minister was the man of the hour. The new face attracted all the limelight and made his Socialist colleagues look old-fashioned — especially fellow centrist Prime Minister Manuel Valls. At first, Valls had looked at the newcomer with a favorable eye, but soon took on a dim view of Macron, whom he started to see as a competitor. In François Hollande's chaotic government, it seemed Macron was the only novelty.
The president's reform was Macron's passport to the world of politics. He did his utmost to deliver a flawless result, spending day and night at the Assemblée Nationale to convince lawmakers one by one. Macron's force of persuasion is one of his greatest talents, the way he uses his steel blue eyes to looks deep into his interlocutors and give them the feeling that nothing matters more than this conversation. "That's something I'd found only among royals until then," says his friend and royalty specialist Stéphane Bern.
But when Manuel Valls decided to use the infamous 49-3 — an article in the French constitution that allows governments to force through legislation without a parliamentary vote — Macron, who was positive he could secure a majority for his reform, perceived it as a political attack. It was the last piece of the puzzle, the one that revealed to him his ultimate ambition: to become the president. He referred to it when he announced his candidacy in mid-November 2016, saying he had "seen from the inside the emptiness of our political system, which blocks majorities based on ideas, on grounds that they weaken parties [...], which has turned the life of the French as the simple setting of their shadow theater."
A president elected on a wasteland
The year 2016 had marked a gradual build-up, with his entering the presidential campaign as the logical outcome. He'd first launched his movement En Marche! (Onward!) in April and resigned from the government in August, exactly two years after being named minister. Go big or go home, every step of the way; his opponents always thinking he'd stumble and fall. "It's just a bubble," they said. "It will burst sooner or later."
Macron's rise to power was actually a finely-tuned operation aimed at total conquest. "He betrayed me methodically," Hollande noted. Through working with the president, Macron eventually got tired of his neverending and unproductive search for balance among competing factions within the Socialist party. Macron places himself in line with former presidents François Mitterrand and Charles de Gaulle, and he doesn't object to assuming the role of the man of providence.
He actually uses that image, as he did for instance on May 1, 2016, at the Joan of Arc Festival in Orleans, drawing a parallel between his own story and the legendary 15th century heroine. "She already feels inside of her a dormant liberty. She knows she wasn't born to live but to try the impossible [...] Joan is nobody, but she carries on her shoulders the will for progress of an entire people," he said in what was his first major address.
He also mentions Napoleon or de Gaulle from time to time, two figures of French History he says have replaced that of the king that the French have been missing since Louis XVI went to the guillotine.
"I don't believe that the man or woman of providence exists on his or her own, they're always the instrument of a profound change, of a deeper historical transformation. But he needs to be there at the right time to reveal it," he said in March. Such a profound change was the disintegration of France's political landscape on which Macron built a victory by default.
Emmanuel Macron is a president elected on a wasteland, the one he contributed to creating by building his conquest on the explosion of the two parties that have been governing and structuring France's political life since the beginning of the Fifth Republic in 1958.
"What a story," François Mitterrand had said with a sigh, upon hearing he'd won in 1981. About Emmanuel Macron's dazzling success, he might have said "What a crazy story ..." Macron himself put it this way, "To be a candidate for the presidency is to have an eye and a style. Just like a writer." The tale of his conquest has come to an end. The one of his presidency begins.