The Magician Can Macron's Charisma Heal France and Europe?
Emmanuel Macron's election is nothing short of a political upheaval in France. As the youngest president in the country's history, he has set himself the task of reunifying a divided country. Can his project of political renewal succeed? And can he help save Europe?
It was late on a rainy evening in October and the reception at the Paris residence of Germany's ambassador to France was well under way when a handful of elegantly dressed 30-somethings bounded up the stairs of the Palais Beauharnais. In front was a young man in a slim-fitting, dark suit over a white shirt, his tie having been left behind in the car. Emmanuel Macron, 37 years old at the time and minister for the economy, industry and digital affairs, wasn't actually on the guest list that evening. But suddenly, he was there, along with his entourage.
They had been in Brussels the whole day, said his advisor, a delicate woman in a black shift dress. Le Ministre, she said smiling, didn't want to miss the reception. "He wants to say hello to Monsieur Schäuble."
And so it came to pass. Not long later, the two could be seen talking animatedly in a corner of the salon -- which meant that Wolfgang Schäuble talked and Emmanuel Macron, who is one year younger than Schäuble's middle daughter, nodded and smiled and didn't shift his gaze from this powerful older man, the German finance minister.
One-and-a-half years later, in April 2017, shortly before the first round of French presidential elections, the still-influential Schäuble said: "If I were French, I would vote for Macron." In other words, the French politician's charm had worked -- and it hadn't yet waned.
The vignette provides but a minor insight into this man who is now set to become the youngest French head of state since Napoleon Bonaparte. At 39 years old, he coincidentally matches the average age in France exactly. But the scene sheds light on how he was able to do something that had never been done before. He bet big and kept his cards concealed for quite some time, maintaining a poker face until the very end. When he finally did flip over his hand, it was unbeatable. And as is the case in many a successful poker hand, luck was on his side.
Macron, though, helped create his own luck. He didn't obey a single one of the unwritten rules that have governed French politics for over five decades. One of those rules held that you don't betray your president: the French don't want a Brutus at the top. Another accepted truth was that French political life was neatly divided between the center-left and the center-right and if you didn't belong to either camp, your political future was bleak. Particularly if you were a former banker.
Something of a Magician
Macron was aware of all these principles -- and he refuted every single one. The first time in his life that he took part in a political campaign, he rose all the way to the presidency. As such, Macron is widely seen as something of a magician -- as the man who can save Europe, who stopped the right-wing populists and who, after a terrible year full of Brexit, Trump and the rise of the right, has given hope back to Europeans. Even more surprisingly, he was an independent candidate who does not have the support of a party. He was the head of a movement that had, until recently, looked more like a digitally adept boy scout troop than a political party ready to take over the reins of the government.
Taken together, Macron's election marks a significant turning point for the France that we had come to know. Macron managed to break through long-established certainties. But his term will also be measured against where the break ends and where the new beginning commences.
Macron could revitalize the office of the presidency, if only because of his youth. He could bring an end to France's monarchical republic, with its horridly courtly conventions inside the Élysée Palace and the anachronistic exercise of power. But in doing so, will he be able to maintain the authority he will need as president?
Emmanuel Macron is a constructivist: He believes that everybody possesses the ability to do something great. But France is not a startup and many people here shy away from significant change. Can Macron, a man who has -- aside from one failed entrance examination -- known only success in his life, become the president to all the people of France?
He will have to follow up his election victory with additional miracles. Because even the challenges facing this president are unique. Macron's extraordinary ability to win people over could help him in this regard. In particular, he has a remarkable bond to older, influential men. They helped pave his way to the top, like outgoing President François Hollande, who mentored and supported him before Macron turned his back on him.
It was a clear, wondrous victory that Macron won last Sunday, with a higher-than-expected 21 million French voters casting their ballots for him. Yet it is also true that 11 million people voted for Marine Le Pen, despite her strangely unhinged campaign. Indeed, Macron's adversary ultimately seemed as though she wanted to repel voters, as though she, like her father, didn't actually want to become president at all.
A Sign of Their Disgust
And then there are the millions of registered voters who didn't bother to go to the polls at all -- or who destroyed their ballots as a sign of their disgust. Four million of them chose the latter path, more than ever before. It is a record that demonstrates just how damaged the relationship is between French voters and their political leaders and how deep the mistrust runs. The country, it is clear, is divided. But there is no single chasm that separates them. It is more like something that began to break apart some time ago, and the myriad cracks run through all of France.
Emmanuel Macron must now bring his country together: He must reconcile the right and the left, and must placate those who either didn't vote or who cast their ballots for Le Pen. And he must close the gap between the French and the European Union -- at least that half of the population that no longer finds value in the EU.
The good news is: He might be able to do it. He is convinced of his educational abilities, but the truth is, he is a master of seduction. That is how he won over his supporters, mentors and patrons. He listens, asks follow-up questions and focuses completely on the person he is talking to. His abilities are most effective in small groups.
And his talents even exert their pull on opposing political camps. Former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, a Gaullist, pledged his support to Macron, and ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy was also impressed. It was Sarkozy who discovered Macron 10 years ago -- before he went on to spend a few years as an investment banker -- and appointed him to his commission to "liberate growth." It was Macron's first significant public role, and he excelled even then. Some of Sarkozy's former cabinet ministers have said in recent days that they are interested in working for the new president.
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Macron's En Marche! Movement -- which now must transform itself into a governing party and has thus been renamed République en marche -- came out of nowhere, but was nevertheless able to run a solid campaign. It was funded exclusively by donations, with much of the money coming from Macron's list of contacts he developed during his time at Rothschild. Following the example of politicians in the U.S. and Britain, he held fundraising dinners, including events in London and New York.
"It will be a difficult task, but I will always tell you the truth," Macron promised on the evening of his election, shortly after he had completed his dignified, solitary stroll through the Louvre courtyard to the strains of Beethoven's 9th, "Ode to Joy," the anthem of the European Union -- just as he had envisioned. The stage-managing of his victory, loaded with such symbolism, shows that Macron does not intend to eschew the emblems of power, rather he hopes to use them to his advantage. The entrance was more reminiscent of François Mitterrand than of Macron's predecessor François Hollande.
What He Must Avoid
With En Marche!, Macron may have been able to conquer France with a grassroots movement, but he is fully aware of the stately aura France's highest political office bestows on its occupants. During the campaign, he repeatedly said he would "preside" rather than govern. Hollande, whose administration -- widely seen as catastrophic -- he was intimately familiar with, serves as an example he doesn't want to emulate.
He knows, in other words, what he doesn't want to be and what he must avoid. He must resist becoming a "normal" president like Hollande, who never impressed the French, neither with his actions nor his presence. Hollande only half-heartedly pursued reforms before subsequently discarding them; he always seemed to be giving speeches in pouring rain, blinking through fogged-up glasses, his tie always somehow strangely askew. Macron, by contrast, can tie a perfect Windsor without once glancing away from his conversation partner or losing his train of thought.
In conjunction with his inauguration on Sunday, Macron will now have to assemble a government, which, given all of the promises he has made, is certain to be a diplomatic tightrope walk. His choice of prime minister will be decisive because it is a chance for Macron to demonstrate that he is serious about renewal. He can't choose anybody from the old guard, yet his head of government still must be someone who can hit the ground running. In contrast to Hollande, Macron doesn't want to lose any time. One of the first laws he would like to push through after inauguration is one that will prohibit lawmakers from hiring members of their family. Macron knows what the people want.
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"Governing means broadening your circle," he told his told his closest advisors following his election victory, as though he were preparing them for the possibility that he would choose a conservative as prime minister. It would be a clever move because it would be a recognition of the fact that many French citizens only voted for him to prevent Marine Le Pen from winning. He has pledged that half of his cabinet will be women.
In one month, it will become clear just how much leeway Emmanuel Macron will have when it comes to implementing his agenda. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for June 11 and 18 and the reforms he envisions -- to the labor market or education system -- can only be realized with a parliamentary majority.
The coming elections, though, highlight yet another novelty: A president who does not come from any of the established parties hoping to achieve a majority with a brand new political movement. En Marche! has to present candidates for 577 electoral districts. And choosing them will also be a tightrope walk: Macron wants to find fresh candidates for half of the seats in the hopes of avoiding a parliament containing the same people as before, just under a different label. His reasoning is clear: The image of professional politicians in France is extremely poor.
- Part 1: Can Macron's Charisma Heal France and Europe?
- Part 2: Macron's Adversaries and Skeptics