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At first he was labelled a fraud, a hologram, a caricature of self-delusion. Then as a traitor to his boss François Hollande – and to the Socialist party he apparently supported. Then dismissed as a mere bubble that the changing winds of popular mood would blow away, or a passing infatuation of commentators bored with the usual cast.

Yet just 11 months after launching his political movement En Marche!, Emmanuel Macron is now the most popular politician in France. And with less than two months to the presidential election he poses a major threat to all the other candidates vying to enter the Élysée Palace.

The new wonder child of French politics is just 39. He has never run for parliament nor any elected office. His political experience is limited to two years as an adviser to the president and another two years as the economy minister in the government of ex-prime minister Manuel Valls. Before that Macron was making very good money as an investment banker at Rothschild – usually a mortal sin in a country where wealth inevitably arouses suspicion.

As the story goes Macron was at an official celebration of Joan of Arc in the city of Orléans – where she famously exhorted soldiers to kick the English out – when he had a vision. His destiny would be to saddle his own white horse and lead the French back to glory. Indeed at his first public meeting in Paris in December, the presidential candidate sounded like an exalted preacher yelling to the heavens as 15,000 people chanted his name.

Today Emmanuel Macron leads in most opinion polls. People flock to his rallies. They are a mixed crowd of disgruntled voters from the left, advocates of the middle ground who are wary of François Fillon’s Catholic conservatism, globalised and digitalised millenials and entrepreneurs desperate for less regulation. There are also low-income youngsters dreaming of a better future and older citizens discouraged by traditional parties incapable of bringing about the reforms they want to see – and all are tired of a political establishment that they deem out of touch with their concerns. However contradictory their expectations may be, they believe that their blue-eyed hero can meet them.

So why has Macron become such a phenomenon? Is it because of his good looks, genial self-assurance and a vocabulary that is refreshingly free of political clichés? Is it the platform sketched out in his book Révolution (in France politicians need to publish a book to be taken seriously) that's full of cautious generalities and skillfully developed week after week to master the news cycle? Is it the lack of panache of his Socialist rivals fighting for survival after the pitiful performance of a president who is too weak to lead them again?

Or is it the anguish of a large cross-section of the public concerned at the prospect of having no other choice in the second round of the election in May other than François Fillon or Marine Le Pen? Staunch traditionalist or the champion of the far right: not the most balanced contest to look forward to and a twisted litmus test of representative democracy.

Macron’s performance has so far defied all pundits’ predictions because he meets none of their usual criteria. A middle-class upbringing, an alumni of the École nationale d’administration – the training ground for many high-achieving civil servants – he is a product of the establishment at a time when the populist tide is supposed to be drowning out the elites. While the chattering classes talk of the collapse of the EU, among the presidential candidates he remains the most unapologetically pro-European.

For Macron, the divide between conservatives and socialists is obsolete. He favours pragmatism over ideology and has no political apparatus to rely on in a system where traditional parties have long dictated the rules. Even his choice of wife is unconventional: Brigitte Trogneux, who taught him literature at college, is 24 years his senior.

His unique talent in this race so far has been his ability to convey emotion: sweeping away dusty rhetoric, wowing people with his energy and convictions rather than arguments. It may not a new recipe but it’s a winning one at a time when instinct and feelings drive the voter more than ever before. Can Emmanuel Macron make it to the Élysée? Whatever the outcome of the vote in spring he has already delivered on the big challenge of engaging voters. More people are starting to believe that they can make a change in French politics.

Monocle: You are a product of France’s elite education system and on the rise despite an anti-elite populist wave. How do you explain that?
Emmanuel Macron: I owe a great deal to the French meritocratic system – I support it. I want to recreate social and economic mobility. I denounce the rules of a system that has closed in on itself and which today has created unhappiness in our societies. There is a crisis of the middle classes. In western societies, due to the globalisation of capitalism, the “1 per cent” – the richest – have profited enormously. The middle classes of emerging nations have as well but the middle classes of western countries have not. The transformation of global capitalism, which we are going through, is threatening our democracy. I am all for denouncing the current political system but I try to do so with rational arguments and by discussing facts, while at the same time making dynamic propositions.

M: When viewed from abroad, France’s inability to cut its 10 per cent unemployment rate seems incomprehensible.
EM: We have a system which aims at an economy of recovery, not an economy of innovation. In fact we are the single largest European country today not to have solved the problem of mass unemployment. We need a system similar to those of Germany and Scandinavian countries. In France we haven’t been able to reach the kind of social compromise needed to create the English-speaking world’s model, which tolerates much more inequality. We also have to reconsider the system of unemployment and professional training. It is about rights and obligations; people should not be allowed to refuse a decent job offer if it corresponds to their qualifications.

M: In France it seems that the level of attachment to the EU has increased and yet the crisis within the EU is worsening.
EM: We should not leave criticism of Europe to the anti-Europeans. The pro-Europeans must criticise Europe in order to improve it. We have to explain what Europe is protecting itself from. Confronted with migration, terrorism, digitalisation, the challenge of climate change and energy transition, Europe offers the right level of sovereignty. We must persuade the people of Europe of this evidence.

M: But why has the EU thus far failed to create real links between Europeans?
EM: Our political leaders have watered down the EU a lot – they have let Europe become bureaucratic. Since the middle of the 1990s, our national politicians have no longer wanted strong leaders in Brussels. Much weaker leaders were appointed, with no vision and less legitimacy.

M: Let’s talk about Brexit. What is the best response to the UK when it comes to negotiations?
EM: I am a hard Brexiter. I think that Europe has made a mistake negotiating the inter-governmental accord [the “special status” deal David Cameron struck with the EU in February last year]. It created a precedent, which is that a single state can twist the European debate to its own interests. Cameron was toying with Europe and we agreed to go along with it, which was a big mistake.

Britain must understand that our interest in the medium to long term is to have clear rules. So if Britain wants to trade with Europe it has to choose a model, such as the Swiss, Norwegian or Canadian. We have to accept that there are losses. But it’s the British who will lose the most. You cannot enjoy rights in Europe if you are not a member – otherwise it will fall apart. Europe is what has enabled us since 1945, in an unprecedented way, to preserve peace, security, freedom and prosperity in our continent. The British are making a serious mistake over the long term. [Foreign secretary] Boris Johnson enjoys giving flamboyant speeches but has no strategic vision; the turmoil he created the day after Brexit proves it. [Former leader of Ukip] Nigel Farage and Mr Johnson are responsible for this crime: they sailed the ship into battle and jumped overboard at the moment of crisis. Theresa May has handled it but what has been happening since then? On the geopolitical level as well as on the financial, realignment and submission to the US. What is going to happen is not “taking back control”: it’s servitude.

M: Following the election of Donald Trump, is Europe and the US still united?
EM: I believe in the western bloc. I think that today, in terms of security and economy, we need it even more. We have geopolitical instability in our neighbourhood, in the Middle East and also in parts of Africa, where there is more religious radicalisation and terrorism. On the economic level, a recomposition of the world is taking place: China is reorganising itself, the Silk Road is being rebuilt. Then there is entrepreneurial Africa, which will profoundly shake up the world in the next 20 years.

So we need a coherent, converging western block. But we are witnessing the end of a model: the American disengagement from the Middle East, the weakening of the Bretton Woods institutions. So the question that must be asked of Mr Trump is, “Do you want to rebuild the model of contemporary regulation with us or without us?”

M: Donald Trump believes that the EU is doomed. What do you say?
EM: I am not going to be hostile towards Mr Donald Trump but I say to him that we, France and the US, are the depositaries of a shared history of freedom: from Lafayette to the Second World War and even the Marshall Plan. On both sides we have many debts. It’s complicated to enter into a relationship that way. His comments on Europe demonstrate that he has no sense of history. Ignoring history has never improved anyone’s status. Facing common challenges, the West has to stick together. Europe has to play its part.

M: Has France’s role in the world changed in recent years?
EM: For the past 10 years, French foreign policy has swayed away from its tradition. Opting for more interventionism it has abandoned the policy of equilibrium, on which its credibility is founded. From 2007 onwards we entered a phase, much encouraged by Washington, where France opted for more interference, destabilising states such as Libya and Syria. France has to hold to its values – I’m not in favour of flattering Bashar al-Assad or Vladimir Putin. We have to reassert our diplomatic tradition, which also means updating and building up a European diplomacy. France has a special part to play, not least because building a common diplomatic and defence policy with 27 members states will be difficult.

M: What role can France play with Germany on the global stage?
EM: Paris and Berlin have to reinforce a much stronger partnership that is in line with our common interests. Angela Merkel is well aware of the current dangers and challenges. Germany is becoming a great military power again. Two per cent of its GDP will be spent on defence – more than France, which hasn’t happened since 1945. Burdened by its history, Germany cannot handle this alone. France is not strong enough economically to play the role it once had at international level. Paris must reinforce an independent diplomacy and at the same time build new areas of discussion and co-operation with Berlin.

M: Should Europe be doing more for refugees?
EM: These are people who risk their lives, people who are fighting for freedom and they symbolise our values. We must welcome them – it’s a political and moral duty. If not, what becomes of our political ideals? Why are we fighting against Isis? In the end we’re fighting because we have different notions of freedom and emancipation. We’re fighting because we don’t have the same relationship with culture. We’re fighting because our vision of humanity is not the same. If we internalise a part of their aggression by saying, “I’m scared of the other person; this Syrian looks like a terrorist and so I’m not going to allow him to integrate,” our defeat has begun.

M: Do you support the burkini ban?
EM: The political debate on the burkini, which took place a few weeks after the attack in Nice, was a recipe for disaster. It created a terrible backlash for French citizens of Muslim faith. The only symbol that came out of it, which the English-speaking press greatly conveyed, was soldiers on a beach, with machine guns pointed, asking a mother to go “home”. I don’t support a kind of multiculturalism that doesn’t correspond to our history. But I believe that there is a way true to our secular tradition to preserve dialogue and respect. If we don’t convince our people that we’re going to make them overcome the social and economic challenges of the 21st century, and that our DNA is the idea of individual emancipation – if we don’t explain our concept of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” – there will be nothing left of our French identity.


The CV

Education: Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense; Sciences Po; École nationale d’administration
Work: Civil servant at the ministry of economy; investment banker at Rothschild
Politics: Deputy secretary-general of the presidency; minister of the economy


Runners and riders

Marine Le Pen
Leader of the far-right Front National. She mixes far-right views on race and religion with a number of traditional left-wing policies on the economy.

François Fillon
Socially conservative candidate for right-wing Les Républicians. Engulfed by a scandal related to payments made to his wife; could be forced to step down.

Benoît Hamon
Socialist candidate from the party’s left. Wants to reduce the 35-hour week to 32 hours and plans a tax on robots.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon
This veteran of hard-left politics is backed by the French Communist party.

How it works:

The first round of voting takes place on 23 April. If no candidate receives more than 50 per cent of the vote then the top two compete two weeks later in the second round.

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