Countdown to the Election How Emmanuel Macron Upended French Politics
Emmanuel Macron is the most unconventional French presidential candidate in decades, and if he keeps his momentum, he could keep Marine Le Pen from taking power. His promise to voters: the building of a new France.
He looks into the camera, a serious -- but not too serious -- expression on his face. Sometimes he raises his eyebrows and a hint of a smile appears at the corners of his mouth. His voice sounds calm but not monotonous. In a YouTube address to his supporters, French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, dressed in a dark suit and narrow tie, is talking about his previous week on the campaign trail. He plans on posting such a video every Sunday from now on. A desk, a reading lamp and a swivel chair, slightly out of focus, can be seen in the background.
This has been a strange election campaign, he says. A lot of noise, "a lot of bad theater." His summary: One candidate is calling on voters to demonstrate against the courts; another is, according to polls, benefiting from the scandals of others despite being embroiled in a scandal herself.
"It's a little sad," says Macron, without mentioning the names of his rivals, François Fillon and Marine Le Pen. Instead, he says: "I believe it is time for us to concentrate on the important things," on everyday life, which, he says, all French citizens can have an impact on, and on prospects for the future.
The important thing for Macron, 39, is his vision. But, as a candidate, he isn't just presenting an ordinary campaign platform to voters. His goal is to create a "new France." This means that what has always existed, the France of the courtly elites, will have to make way. Macron is deadly serious when he says that he wants to reinvent politics. He wants to shake up his country, rebuild it and finally make it fit for the future.
This was already his objective back when he served as minister of the economy under the current Socialist government. He would say things like: "I am motivated by the ability to shape the future of my country," or "I believe we must do many things very differently."
Others didn't take him seriously at the time, and his message didn't get across. He was too young and too wet behind the ears. His boss, then Prime Minister Manuel Valls, once said: "Emmanuel must learn to play in a team, to adapt." It sounded as if he were scolding a schoolboy. When asked about Macron's ambitions, President François Hollande, who first brought him in as his adviser and then made him a minister, said: "He is a member of my team, under my supervision" and that "he knows what he owes me." He said this with a friendly wink, as if Macron were his creation.
François Hollande is being quietly swallowed up by history, and we haven't heard anything about Manuel Valls since his effort to secure his party's presidential nomination failed, but no one is ridiculing Macron anymore. In fact, things could hardly be going any better for the politician, whose candidacy came as an astonishment to everybody last November. Within a few weeks, Macron, who no one had believed stood much of a chance of winning the election, was suddenly the front-runner.
He is gradually gaining on Marine Le Pen, and in a poll released a week ago, he surpassed her in a poll for the first round of voting for the first time in this campaign, with 26 percent to Le Pen's 25 percent. Furthermore is steadily expanding his lead over François Fillon, the conservative candidate. Fillon has been tarnished by both his wife's "fake work" scandal and his foolhardy reaction to it.
France has never experienced a campaign like this -- one as brutal as it is exciting. For the first time, the two established parties, the Socialist Party and the conservative Republicans, could be eliminated in the first round. And, for the first time, the second round of voting on May 7 simply defies prediction.
There are predictions, of course, but the most accurate one at the moment is that everything is up in the air.
A New Era in French Politics
It is clear that if Macron faces off against Le Pen on May 7, the unwritten law which holds that the left and the right hold power alternately in the France will become obsolete. It would serve as evidence that the decisive conflict is no longer between these two classic camps, but between pro-European liberals and protectionist nationalists -- yet another sign that societies are now structured differently than they were only a few years ago.
And who would have thought a year ago that Emmanuel Macron would be running for the country's highest office? There were rumors about his ambitions at the time, but very few people believed that he would actually take the plunge.
With a month and a half to go before the first round of voting in April 23, the question now is whether Macron can keep up the pace he has set. It is no longer just a question of his success, about the curious story of a young high-achiever who seems to succeed at everything he does. Macron has become someone who briefly suspended the stereotypical ways of thinking, a man who came up with the right idea at the right time.
For the French, this election is about the kind of country they want to live in after May 7. The candidates' visions couldn't be more different. In François Fillon's France, a small number of people are above the law, while the rest are expected to make sacrifices. He promises deep-seated reforms in almost all aspects of public life.
Chaos would rule in Marine Le Pen's France. The country would seal itself off from its neighbors, and there would be constant referendums. Le Pen wants to leave the European Union and reintroduce the franc, but she isn't quite sure how.
And then there is Benoît Hamon, the candidate of the currently governing Socialists. He promises a government-guaranteed basic income and, together with former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, is writing letters to European Central Bank President Mario Draghi. Unless we are all deeply mistaken, Hamon has already become a non-contender in this election.
This is why the somewhat narrow shoulders of Emmanuel Macron must now support the hopes of all those who are not fundamentally against Europe, who value the rule of law in France, and who believe that something must change so that their country will no longer seem so moribund, blocked and depressed.
Growing Momentum for Macron
More and more politicians from other camps are throwing their support behind Macron. Centrist François Bayrou -- who played the role of kingmaker in 2012, when he endorsed François Hollande's candidacy -- has pledged to support him. And Green Party politician Daniel Cohn-Bendit also plans to vote for Macron, saying he is "currently the best solution."
Other supporters include the two prominent Socialists Bertrand Delanoë, mayor of Paris for many years, and Gérard Collomb, the mayor of Lyon. Collomb gushes when he talks about Macron, saying he is different from other politicians. When he gave a reception for the relatively new minister in Lyon two years ago, he expected 200 guests. More than a thousand came.
The interest in and sympathy for what Macron does and says has accompanied him since he took office as economics minister in August 2014. Even as the government was losing popularity by the week, his own popularity only grew. Prior to running for president, Macron had never before run for public office. And doesn't seem afraid of being provocative. He is openly enthusiastic about Europe and defends German Chancellor Angela Merkel's refugee polies.
Although Macron seems well-tempered -- he likes Bach and plays the piano so well that he could have become a pianist -- he also exhibits a mild but persistent penchant for troublemaking, almost as if he were testing his own boundaries.
As a young minister under a Socialist president, he described liberalism as the "values of leftists." He told young people that they should "want to become billionaires." When an angry union member challenged him over his reform plans, Macron coldly told him that there was only one way he could afford the kind of suit he was wearing: work.
But Macron is no longer a young minister. He must now win over the support of a majority of French voters. Le Pen and Fillon can count on a solid reservoir of grassroots voters, but not Macron. People are interested in him, but whether they will vote for him remains unclear.
What makes him so appealing is that he represents something completely new, a "democratic revolution," as he puts it. The only question is whether the French are merely curious about Macron or truly ready for such a revolution. A lot can still happen in the weeks before the election. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has said that he has compromising material about Macron and the candidate can still make a lot of mistakes, which is why every word he says counts. He needs to be careful, because everything registers with voters. You can literally watch him learning.
A Series of Missteps
Recently, for example, on the market square of the southern French town of Carpentras, framed by gnarled plane trees and stone benches, 30 furious people were venting their rage on a spring day. "Macron," they shouted, "traitor!" It was the kind of reception the darling of the polls isn't exactly accustomed to.
"We want an apology," the protestors shouted, waving a French flag with two black footprints in the middle. Before visiting Carpentras, Macron had traveled to Algeria, where he placed a wreath on the grave of French actor Roger Hanin. He also happened to say, in passing, that the French colonial era was a "crime against humanity."
While his words were met with applause in Algiers, they were not well-received by his fellow Frenchmen at home, especially the Pieds-Noirs, or Frenchmen who lived in Algeria during French rule. His approval numbers dropped sharply.
When Macron appeared in a hall in Toulon the next day, many seats were empty. "I'm sorry if I offended anyone with my remark," he said. Still, he added, France must also confront the unpleasant sides of its history. His approval numbers sank even further.
The next day, he stood in front of his desk in Paris and explained into a camera what exactly he had meant with his remark. He said that he had not intended to insult anyone, but added that people should be allowed to speak openly. His appeal sounded like an entreaty.
He is struggling with himself as he tries to convert his direct approach into something positive. Sometimes he succeeds. During a visit to one of the French suburbs known as banlieus on Tuesday, a younger business owner asked Macron what promises he had for residents of the suburbs.
"I won't promise you anything," Macron replied, looking the man directly in the eyes. "We have already promised far too much for the banlieue, and then failed to keep our promises."
On the next day, International Women's Day, as he was standing on the stage of a small theater in Paris, a woman in the audience took the microphone and asked: "Monsieur Macron, with you as president, will we finally have a female prime minister again?
"I would like to see that happen," Macron replied, raising his voice. Nevertheless, he added, he would not select someone to head his government according to gender, but solely on the basis of competency.
He has managed to do what no one before him has achieved. This is the first time since the establishment of France's Fifth Republic in 1958, that an independent candidate has stood such a strong chance of becoming president. And perhaps the signs for a candidate like him have never been this auspicious, either. Some 89 percent of the French believe that their country is moving in the wrong direction. Nevertheless, Macron's success cannot be reduced to the weakness of his opponents.
A New Way of Doing Politics?
In April 2016, Macron founded his movement, En Marche!, in Amiens, the northern French city where he was born. Today, less than a year later, it already counts more than 200,000 members, a number that is growing by the day. "I don't know how this experiment will end," he said at the time in the exhibition hall in Amiens. But he wanted to try.
He was disappointed by his stint as a cabinet minister. It involved too much weighing of pros and cons, too many cumbersome procedures, too many compromises. At the end of the process, he said in an interview shortly before submitting his letter of resignation to President Hollande, the results no longer reflect one's own contribution. At the time, in May 2016, protests against the labor market law he had been instrumental in creating were reaching their climax, and mass strikes were crippling public life. Sitting in a high-speed train to Brussels, tying his tie and speaking incessantly, he said it was time to rethink the way political decisions are made, noting that they no longer corresponded to what people expected from those in power.
"Even if you want to pass a law in an expedited procedure, it takes six or seven months. That is very, very slow," he said. His resignation was the logical consequence of these words.
As a politician, you also have to be an educator, Macron said in the interview. You have to explain to people what you plan to do. It was a blatant dig at the governing style of his president. This is another reason he says his movement -- he never calls it a party -- is different. There are flat hierarchies, and anyone who is interested in a "transparent debate" can participate, Macron explained.
Shortly after it was founded, 25,000 Frenchmen had already registered on the En Marche! website. Local groups were formed throughout the country, and their members went from door to door with a questionnaire:
"What do you not like about France?"
"What do you dislike about the political system?"
"What is your greatest hope?"
To be able to bring about change, you have to listen first, says Macron. He used the answers to these questions to develop the platform for his presidency, which he calls "My Contract with the Nation."
It took him almost three hours to present his platform in a speech in Paris. He wants to rebuild the French social insurance system, reducing the differences between privileged public servants and people working in the private sector. Some 120,000 jobs are to be cut in the public sector, an unheard-of plan for a former cabinet minister in a Socialist government. He wants to strengthen equal opportunity by breaking up ghettoization, especially in cities. As part of this plan, companies will not have to pay social insurance contributions for career starters from the suburbs for three years in order to make people from those areas more attractive hires.
Suddenly the energy was back again, says Axelle Tessandier, 35. The fit entrepreneur, with dark, curly hair, is sitting on a table at the headquarters of En Marche! Macron has rented three floors in an ugly office building in the 15th arrondissement, with a lot of open space and a few bunk beds for those occasional late-night work sessions. A hundred volunteers help answer emails and phone calls, and there are about 50 paid employees. The movement relies solely on donations for its funding.
A Breath of Fresh Air into French Politics
Tessandier lived in the United States for a while before returning to France in late 2015. She says she could no longer look on from afar as France, her country, was going to the dogs. There had been two serious terror attacks and the Front National was gaining strength. The mood was dismal.
"I arrived in Paris and didn't know what to do," she says. She didn't want to work for the Socialists and she didn't agree with what the middle-class right represented. And suddenly there was Emmanuel Macron: Neither left nor right, just forward. Macron calls it "progressisme," and Tessandier liked it.
Imagine someone suddenly waking up after sleeping for 50 years, she says. This person would have trouble coping in a world where so much has changed -- unless, she says, this person is placed in the National Assembly. "He would feel comfortable there, because that's where nothing has changed." It's an effective way of describing how urgently change is needed in French politics.
Macron is the only candidate not trying to score points by fomenting fear. He wants to create hope and spread optimism, two things that have gone missing in France in recent years. Macron says he believes in "benevolence, even in politics."
He refuses to tolerate whistles and catcalls during his appearances, even if they are aimed at his rivals. This has incensed essayist Pascal Bruckner, who writes that benevolence is out of place in politics and is something for the clergy instead. Bruckner finds it intolerable that Macron sees himself as something of a savior.
Macron's campaign events, as it turns out, resemble so-called happenings, in which the elaborate sound and lighting systems place Macron sqarely in the focus. When he stands and spreads his arms, it feels like he is blessing his audience: a slim, almost slight man with blue eyes and well-proportioned facial features.
"Je vous aime farouchement," he calls out to his audience in Lyon. "I love you boundlessly." Together, he promises, raising his voice, "we will lead hope to triumph!"
These bombastic sentences sound odd -- they're not words he would use in a conversation. Macron is a disarming person, friendly and attentive. He knows how to listen. After a meeting with him, one always wonders how he manages to be so likeable, and how he is able to keep his self-confidence from tilting into arrogance.
This would make sense, given his background. As much as he may be fighting for renewal, he is a product of the classic French system of elite education. He attended the best schools in the country and before becoming President Hollande's adviser at the Élysée Palace, he made a lot of money as a banker at Rothschild.
An Unexplainable Career
In his political-biographical manifesto, "Revolution," published to coincide with the beginning of the campaign, he does his best not to seem like a boy wonder who succeeds at everything he tries. He repeatedly mentions his marriage to a woman 24 years his senior as proof that he is not interested in conventions, and that he actually tends to defy them -- against all resistance.
"I know the feeling of being viewed as odd, because you live your life in a way that does not correspond to the norm," he said in a recent TV interview. "This isn't just theoretical for me. I've experienced it." And in early February in Paris, he couldn't have responded more elegantly to a longstanding rumor that he is gay: with irony.
"Should you have heard that I am leading a double life, then this is my hologram, which has slipped away from me. This cannot possibly be me." The rumors are particularly difficult for his wife Brigitte, he said, who wonders how he could even manage this feat physically. "After all, we are always together, day and night," said Macron, before adding, in a dig at Fillon, that he doesn't even have to pay her.
It was an extremely upfront, unusually clear reaction to attempts to discredit him through his personal life. He even named the name of his supposed lover. It seems likely that the interview brought him even more new supporters.
He can't even explain his own career himself, he writes in his book "Revolution." And he is still amazed by his success.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan