With his own political movement – En Marche, or “Forward” – France’s recently resigned minister of the economy is preparing the ground for a stab at the presidency. But in the biggest tease in French politics, he has still left open whether he will run in 2017.
Philosophy major, graduate of the elite National School of Administration (ENA), investment banker: Emmanuel Macron’s resume does not fit that of a typical French politician. It should thus come as no surprise that the 38-year-old chooses to follow his own path in politics, scandalizing both the leftist government and the conservative opposition. When he resigned the post of minister of the economy, industry, and digital affairs on August 30, 2016 he gave a typically provocative reason, saying “I have run against the limits of the political system.”
His appointment in August 2014 was in itself a provocation to the Socialist Party’s left wing. Of all people, it was this avowed economic liberal who took the place of Arnaud Montebourg after the left-wing minister was tossed out for insubordination. Excitement over the smart politician, who in contrast with the other ministers has no Socialist political chops, has never cooled – in fact, quite the opposite. And Macron and his shy smile are doing everything they can to stir up the French political scene even further.
In April he launched his own coalition – En Marche, or “Forward” – in his northern hometown of Amiens in the hope of breaking up the hardened structures of government. His movement is “neither right nor left,” and is already more than 40,000 members strong according to its young star. The move, almost exactly one year before the first round of presidential elections, was quickly seen as a base for Macron’s own candidacy. Until that point, he had always shied away from throwing his own hat in the ring and becoming a competitor to his political mentor François Hollande. The president positioned the career changer at the head of the ministry of the economy despite the fact that Macron had never held political office before.
Steep Career Trajectory
It was another high point of a steep career trajectory, one which began at Paris’ elite Henri IV high school, continued at the policy university Sciences Po and the civil servant training academy ENA, and was ultimately rewarded with a post as inspector of finances. At 31, this doctors’ son switched to the private sector, where he became partner as an investment banker at Rothschild & Cie Banque in just four years. In 2010 he engineered a €9 billion deal: a Nestlé takeover of Pfizer’s baby formula business.
But politics enticed the successful banker, even while working at Rothschild. After rejecting a 2007 offer from conservative presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, Macron was an early supporter of Socialist Hollande. Following the latter’s election in 2012, he rewarded Macron with the post of economic and financial adviser, serving directly in the Élysée. Macron readily admits that this was a period of only minor successes. “At the beginning [of the financial crisis], we needed to have reacted more quickly and with greater daring, and as the president’s adviser I carry my part of the blame,” he said in an interview with Le Monde in January.
Above all, not enough was done with regards to employment. As a minister Macron began to sense just how difficult it can be to achieve change in France this past year while working to pass a law intended to stimulate the economy – a law which would bear his name. Macron spent nearly two hundred hours in the National Assembly promoting his agenda, which was ultimately adopted without even so much as a vote because the left wing of the Socialist Party had threatened to veto it, fearing a further relaxation of workers’ rights. A year after the law’s ratification, Le Monde said that it “sent a political signal to economic and financial actors while at the same time strengthening divisions within the political left.”
Closer to Owners Than Workers
From the very beginning, Macron was seen as a man whose interests were aligned more with business owners than with their employees. At last year’s annual summer meeting of France’s largest employer federation, MEDEF – with whose president Pierre Gattaz he is on a first-name basis – Macron even attacked the Socialists’ holy 35-hour work week. It is wrong to believe that France is doing better when it works less, said the department head. For this, the conservative newspaper Figaro named him “the best right-leaning bourgeois minister of the economy the left has ever had.”
Macron also angered the Socialists with his January 2015 statement, “We need young French people who want to be billionaires.” The dynamic politician – who is a millionaire himself following the Pfizer deal – has been focussing his attention on start-ups. He seems to feel especially at home in Silicon Valley, where his entrée is eased by his fluent American English. He also encourages students to take risks back home, saying in one speech at the Telecom ParisTech engineering school in April, “Take risks, even when they could result in total failure.”
The slogan is one he lives himself: the self-proclaimed beacon of hope could soon declare himself a contender for presidency in 2017. The young politician is popular enough, with poll ratings most recently around the 50 percent mark. The founding of En Marche while in government, however, made him unpopular among his cabinet colleagues. The other ministers accused him of placing his own interests above that of the government. “More than anything, Macron is hype,” criticized Finance Minister and friend of Hollande Michel Sapin, who has now taken over Macronʼs portfolio. Head of the opinion research institute ViaVoice François Miquet-Marty speaks instead of a “Macron phenomenon,” one that functions in large part through rejection of the existing, dominant political offerings.
The president threatened his longtime mentee point-blank with expulsion in his televised interview on Bastille Day. “Respecting the rules means staying in the government, and not respecting them means leaving.” The head of state was reacting to Macron’s first appearance in front of his followers on July 12 in Paris – a meeting reminiscent of the US party conventions occurring at the same time. In a dark suit and unbuttoned white shirt, “EM” walked back and forth among his nearly four thousand listeners and elucidated his view of things. “Freedom, equality, and solidarity” are the values he evoked. Despite fervent applause, his speech was never concrete – for example, he did not use the word “unemployment” even once.
“Changing the System”?
The man who one BBC journalist compared to a young Tony Blair also failed to announce his expected candidacy. That may be on hold until December, when the unpopular Hollande will decide whether he will run again in 2017. Yet Macron gave his followers a sliver of hope: “No one can stop this movement. We will continue it until 2017, until our victory.” He presents himself as renovator of a political landscape that is on its last legs. “Our system is exhausted. It must be changed.” This is just one controversial statement from a politician known for his straight talk. “One cannot criticize a supposed system and yield to the Sirens of populism when one is oneself the product of the republic’s elite,” sharply countered Prime Minister Manuel Valls. The prime minister, who sees himself in the role of the modernizer, became Macron’s chief adversary within a matter of months.
His opponents accuse him above all of one fact: he has never run for office. “He was an adviser in the Élysée, then parachuted into the government without ever being active on the local level. This model is not the new way of politicking, but rather the opposite – a symbol of politics’ collapse,” criticized Laurent Wauquiez, vice president of the conservative Republicans Party, in an interview with France’s Journal du Dimanche.
Before resigning, Macron had been engaged in a kind of standings battle with Hollande for months. He may be loyal, but he is no presidential “conscript,” he reported in an April interview. At the En Marche meeting, the political neophyte may have officially pledged himself to the president, but did not spare veiled criticism. “Our country is threadbare from failed promises” was one such barb against the head of state, who has been promising to decrease the record levels of unemployment without any such result since taking office. Hollande responded with the comment that Macron was a political “fresh convert. … Yet politics are not a mere excursion.”
His minister is nowhere near as inexperienced as Hollande paints him – at least not in media matters. Macron and his wife have twice graced the cover of the popular tabloid Paris Match this year alone. “Together on the Rise to Power,” read the headline next to a photo of the couple on the red carpet in front of the Élysée Palace in April. Macron and his wife are especially poised for such people stories, even if they make an unusual team. Brigitte Trogneux was in fact Emmanuel’s French teacher, back when he was a top student winning awards for, among many things, his fine piano skills. For her he moved from Amiens to Paris even before completing his high school studies. Twenty years his senior, Trogneux was at the time married to a banker and the mother of three children. Yet she divorced her first husband and married Macron in 2007 – a job for which she gave up her teaching career. During this summer’s vacation in Biarritz, she and her husband were photographed holding hands on the beach. “A summer of reflection. I read, I write, I ponder,” he told Paris Match, in response to questions over his long public disappearance following the Nice attack.
Yet the ambitious 38-year-old keeps moving forward: in the fall he hopes to present a kind of program for En Marche forged via numerous conversations. For two months, volunteers went from door to door, collecting 25,000 surveys to measure France’s current pulse. The initiative – another thing Macron copied from the US election – bears the slogan “Politics another way.” It is intended to help him hone his profile in areas besides economics. Thus, the ex-minister is also planning to deliver a speech on Muslims in France, who form the second largest religious group in the country and who have come into greater focus since the attacks. Further, he is working on another speech on the educational system which he believes does not offer children equality of opportunity. His grandmother, director of a middle school, is according to Macron the source of his socialist beliefs – even if he dropped his party membership in 2009. Since then he has considered himself a leftist and distanced himself from the Socialist Party. “Honesty requires me to tell you that I am not a Socialist,” Macron admitted to journalists in August.
Equality is one of his three dreams for French identity, he revealed in an interview with Revue des deux mondes last year. The other two are industrial development and Europe. He showed just how close the European project is to his heart at a debate at his alma mater Sciences Po following the positive Brexit vote. “It is absolute bullshit to say that we could hold our ground even better against Chinese dumping without Europe,” he shrewdly responded to the right-populist National Front’s address.
The French love his blunt style. More than 50 percent found him “nice,” “competent,” and “brave” in the June 8 survey of the opinion survey institute lfop. His ability to lead the country out of the crisis, however, was endorsed by just 26 percent of participants. And only 33 percent believed that he closely understood the concerns of the population. This is another reason why the minister promised in his latest En Marche video, published before the summer break, “I will submerge myself in this country.” Now outside the government he should enough time on his hands to do just that.
Read more in the Berlin Policy Journal App – September/October 2016 issue.