Emmanuel Macron: The man who is 'not Le Pen' – and now president of France

Emmanuel Macron promised to shake up a country desperately in need of it. But can a man, who has been buoyed as much by audacity as by intellect and savvy, have the fortitude to bring France forward with the tough reforms it needs?

Thibault Camus/AP
French President-elect Emmanuel Macron gestures during a victory celebration outside the Louvre museum in Paris, Sunday. Speaking to thousands of supporters from the Louvre Museum's courtyard, Mr. Macron said that France is facing an 'immense task' to rebuild European unity, fix the economy, and ensure security against extremist threats.

The love story of Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte, who is 24 years his senior, has long generated gossip. But it’s not the French presidential candidate’s first unconventional relationship.

It was the singular bond he shared with his late maternal grandmother, Germaine Nogues, who he called Manette, where observers see the first inkling of a person who would live unconstrained by convention, who would show a willingness and even a need to be different and undaunted – ultimately poising him to win the French presidency on Sunday.

Intellectually exacting, his grandmother wasn’t the type “to bake cookies,” as his biographer puts it. Instead, as a young boy he spent long hours reading aloud excerpts of Molière and Georges Duhamel with her. Their relationship grew so strong that his own mother wondered if her mother was stealing the young Emmanuel away from their nuclear family.

These are themes that reappear in the candidate’s life – loyalty, determination, and perhaps above all, a need to be free to choose his own path.

In a country deeply attached to pomp and political tradition, he launched an upstart centrist party a year ago, claiming allegiance to neither the left nor right. Aged 39 and virtually unknown the last time the French elected a president, Macron is now the youngest leader in modern French history. He soundly beat Marine Le Pen for the French presidency Sunday with 65.8 percent of the second round vote, despite his minimal political experience.

Ms. Le Pen sought to paint Macron as an elitist insider who, far from the revolutionary he claims to be, is just a continuation of the status quo. Indeed, the former investment banker – seen almost as a political prince, often called France’s or even Europe’s John F. Kennedy – embodies so much of what populists are rejecting today. But rather than soften his position on key populist bête noires like the European Union, he has embraced them – his May 1 rally in Paris was a sea of EU flags waving aside French ones. Europeans from the outside see in him the newest champion of the EU – and possibly the last defense for a bloc that could crumble under a Le Pen victory.

Mr. Macron promises to shake up a country desperately in need of it. But can a man, who has been buoyed as much by luck as intellect and savvy, have the fortitude to bring France forward with the tough reforms it needs?

Hope for France?

Looking back through his life, many says he’s been willing to fight against established norms since age 5.

“He is sort of the perfect product of what we call the ‘French system,’ ” says Anne Fulda, a French journalist who authored the recent biography, “Emmanuel Macron: Un Jeune Homme Si Parfait” (A Young Man So Perfect). “But in politics he dared to do this very crazy thing, deciding to run for president when nobody knows you.… It’s a way to act against the system.”

This is far from the first unexpected choice he's made, she says, pointing at his marriage. “When ... you choose a wife that is so much older, when you choose difficulty, it’s a way to be different. At the same time when he chose to have this special link with his grandmother, it’s a way to be different too. I think he was like that from the beginning.”

On May 1, Macron and Le Pen led huge rallies around Paris. In the suburb of Villepinte, Le Pen, the anti-immigrant, anti-EU candidate of the National Front, warned supporters that Macron would put globalism ahead of French interests. “On May 7, I ask you all to stand tall against finance, arrogance, and the rain of money,” she told the crowd.

Her message has drawn not just the far-right fringe but the so-called “left behind,” and has resonated in a deeply pessimistic country where the sitting president is the most unpopular in history. A 2016 Ipsos global poll showed the French the gloomiest of all countries surveyed, with 88 percent of respondents saying the country was headed in the “wrong direction.”

Macron forged ahead with a message of renewal, promising to upend the current economic paralysis and help the French get beyond the fear of labor reform, which he says will boost everybody. “The French have hope and optimism, that’s why they put us in the lead,” he said at his rally Monday, referring to his first-round victory. “The second thing, and it’s just as important, is that the French are angry,” adding, “we need to hear them as well.”

At the event hall, filled with dance music and illuminated by skylights, Martial Sanglard, a nightclub singer, says Macron to him is like JFK. “I’m a socialist, but I support Macron as the only one who offers hope for France,” he says. “He is the youthful candidate we need.”

Isabelle Potier, a pharmacist at the rally who says she comes more from the right, says she is confident that he’ll be able to turn his words into policy despite a short record in governing behind him. “Look at what he’s been able to put together in a year, from nothing.”

'Talented, and lucky'

Macron was the economic minister under President François Hollande when he left to start his own movement “En Marche.” Alain Minc, a business consultant and Macron's mentor, says when he first met Macron 15 years ago and asked him what he wanted to do, Macron told him he wanted to be president of France.

But last year when Macron shared with Mr. Minc his plans to run for president now, Minc says he urged Macron to hold off until 2022. “I told him not to go too quickly,” Minc says. “His answer was fascinating. He said, ‘You are describing the world of yesterday. Now it doesn’t work that way,’ and he was right. He understood the political world is moving very quickly.”

Macron studied at the elite Ecole National d’Administration (ENA). He later worked at the finance ministry before leaving for Rothschild Bank. He returned to government in 2012 as an adviser to President Hollande, and was later tapped as economy minister. He resigned last summer and officially launched his campaign in November – an audacious gamble that succeeded in part because of the implosion of the mainstream parties in the race.

“I told him recently, you have a contract with God, I never met someone so lucky,” Minc says. “But he was talented, and lucky. That’s exactly what Napoleon requested from his generals: talent and luck.”

Macron grew up comfortably in the provincial city of Amiens, the son of two doctors. He says in his book "Revolution" that he lived his childhood a bit in “another world,” largely “through texts and words,” which his grandmother helped foster. For years he aspired to be a novelist. He was the perfect child: a prize-winning pianist, at the top of his class. He also loved drama, which is how he met his future wife Brigitte Trogneux.

Their relationship began when she was his high school drama teacher, and her daughter Laurence was in Macron’s class. The two got to know one another through a play they wrote together. Brigitte, who at the time was a married mother of three, has been quoted as saying of the time: “I had the feeling I was working with Mozart.” She has said she always saw Macron as a contemporary, that she couldn’t see the age difference everyone else saw.

While Macron’s parents initially hoped the passion would cool, especially after he moved to Paris to finish his studies, the two stayed together, marrying in 2007. She told Paris Match magazine in an interview: "At the age of 17, Emmanuel said to me, 'Whatever you do, I will marry you!’ ” The only member of Macron's family who at the time approved of the relationship? Grandmother Manette, says Ms. Fulda.

Macron talked about his unusual family on the campaign trail, including having seven grandchildren who call him “daddy,” using the English word. But he says that doesn’t mean there is less love in his family – part of an inclusive message he espouses on everything from the economy to Europe to same-sex marriage. He also used his family situation to sell himself as an asset: that he fights established norms, and wins.

A pessimistic electorate

Not everyone buys his left-right brand. His critics say he is short on substance and purposely vague about his centrist platforms. Le Pen zinged him during a televised debate in March: “Mr. Macron you have an amazing talent, you've spoken for seven minutes and I'm unable to summarize your thinking. You've said nothing!” she said.

Despite a start-up campaign that has been embraced by young people, more voters ages 18 to 24 supported Le Pen and far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon than they did the youthful Macron. Many said they would vote not for Macron, but against Le Pen.

Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on the extreme right in Europe at the Fondation Jean-Jaurès, says that the level of hatred toward the system in France cannot be underestimated, a risk for any future president.

“There is really a possibility that if Macron is elected and doesn’t really bring something new, something strong especially with regard to the economy but also with the way the political system works, we certainty will have a very difficult time,” he says. “If he only appeals to start-uppers, young educated people, winners of globalization, those in the professions and so on, he will not remain for five years.”

An exchange that went viral last year already shows the challenges he’ll face convincing the working class. In small-town France, the fluent English speaker who advocates for more French entrepreneurism was confronted by a T-shirt clad protester goading him about his fancy suits. “The best way to buy yourself a suit is to work,” Macron shot back – a comment which critics say showed how disconnected he is from the life of ordinary French.

Macron seems at pains to emphasize that he is an outsider who was not born with a silver spoon. “My grandparents were a teacher, railway worker, social worker, and bridges and roadways engineer,” he writes in Revolution. “All came from modest backgrounds.”

He’s made some missteps curating that image, including a lavish celebratory dinner after his round-one victory April 23 that was widely panned.

Kind or hard?

The question of likeability also hangs over Macron, despite a dazzling smile and piercing gaze that makes individuals feel on the campaign trail that he’s speaking directly to them. A schoolmate from L'ENA told Fulda, for example, that he wasn’t always natural. “He was very pleasant, smiling, and shaking hands with everyone, but there was something, they felt, there was something fake, in fact,” Fulda says. “His wife says something, she says he doesn’t need anyone, and that no one can come into his perimeter.”

And yet, almost paradoxically, Fulda sees a strong desire to be liked – what she considers his biggest liability as president. “Perhaps it’s his strong desire to be always loved,” she says. “If you want to please everyone you cannot do a lot of reforms.”

Minc disagrees. “He looks kind, he smiles,” he says. But “he will be brutal, cynical, not a mild king, but a strong one.”

He says he’s seen a change in just over a week – after he was confronted in Amiens last week by Le Pen, who ambushed his visit to a Whirlpool factory set to close down. He stood in front of the workers, and told them Le Pen was lying to them. “He did something very important. When people are accused of being elite, the best countermeasure is to make sure you are physically bold.”

Ultimately he says Macron is like a cat. “You throw him through the window and at the end he falls on his feet,” Minc says.

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