The Magician Can Macron's Charisma Heal France and Europe?
Part 2: Macron's Adversaries and Skeptics
Macron and his credibility are under the microscope, as he well knows. In part, that is because he is a child of the system on which he has now declared war.
Last Wednesday, for example, almost as though he were trying to set an example, he rejected offers from his former boss, ex-Prime Minister Manuel Valls, to campaign on his behalf. Valls is the man who once promoted Macron to the French cabinet -- and he had announced that he intended to run for En Marche! in his electoral district in southern Paris. But Macron rebuffed him, leading some to refer to the newly elected president as "the killer" on Twitter. Macron may stand for reconciliation, but he is also adept at the art of humiliation.
Macron wants parliamentary candidates who are full of fresh ideas. He hopes that the June votes will serve as a legitimation of his election to the presidency by granting him a mandate to do all that he has promised to do. He faces the task of bringing the new and the old together, a coexistence that has to be successful if France wants to truly change and break free of its current stasis and depression.
The project will be made more difficult by the fact that bipartisanship is not generally counted among France's many virtues. Governing coalitions in the country are referred to as "cohabitation" and essentially seen as a way to keep the opposition on a short leash. That, though, is the scenario the center-right is hoping for -- even as they, in their desperate attempts to cling to the benefits political office bestows upon them, seem not unlike those cartoon figures who run off a cliff and don't even notice that there is no longer any ground under their feet. If the conservatives win a majority in the coming parliamentary elections, which cannot be ruled out, many of the young president's plans would likely have to be discarded -- because the center-right would do all they could to thwart him.
And there are others who stand in opposition to Macron as well. The country's labor unions are among them. Even though they don't represent as many workers as they do in Germany, they can still launch damaging general strikes at any time. And Macron represents everything the unions hate: a former banker who wants to reform the country's welfare system, in part by pushing through hated labor market reforms -- by presidential decree if he has to.
The extreme left-wing politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who received almost 8 million votes in the first round of the election, has likewise called on his supporters to resist Macron's plans.
Throwing Certainties Overboard
And Marine Le Pen, the election runner-up, has spoken darkly of a strong opposition, though she must first turn her attentions to her own party. Just as in the rest of France, nothing in the Front National is as it was just a few weeks ago. The majority of voters in six of the 11 municipalities governed by Front National cast their ballots for Macron. Since then criticism has rained down on Le Pen and, in particular, her deputy Florian Philippot, despite the Front National having achieved its best-ever result in a presidential election.
Making things even worse for Front National, Marine's niece Marion announced this week that she is "temporarily" withdrawing from politics to focus on raising her young daughter. Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, 27, was considered among right-wing conservatives as a shining hope for the future.
Such is the situation following this election, in which established certainties were thrown overboard along with much of the erstwhile political system. Whereas before, two parties passed power back and forth among themselves, the country now has four blocks of almost equal size. Plus an additional block of people who didn't vote at all.
On the Monday following the election, Christophe Guilluy was sitting in a café on Place de la République and offering his analysis of the historical results. Guilluy, an angular man in his early 50s, is a geographer -- and the man who likely exerted considerable influence on the campaign strategies of both Macron and Le Pen. He is the originator of the theory that France is splitting in two. His essay is titled "la France périphérique," and it is a meticulous profile of the country as it stands today. In the piece, Guilluy describes how rural areas have become increasingly alienated from France's urban centers and how they have developed in opposition to one another, such that geographic segregation has ultimately developed into societal rupture.
It is a theory that both Macron and Le Pen agree with, and one reflected in French voting patterns. It is interesting, Guilluy says, how clearly these social, cultural and geographic breaks were exposed in this election. "All of these rifts that run through France are visible politically. Now, politics must be reshaped," he says. Categories such as right and left no longer apply. As if to follow the argument to its logical conclusion, he says that France is more atomized than it is split. He says that Macron's strength is that he was the first to have understood as much.
"This time Macron won, but next time it might be Le Pen or a different populist," Guilluy says. The French, he says, have long moved like tectonic plates, with society constantly shifting from one side to the other. "Everything could capsize at any time," he says. "The middle class, the glue of every society, is in the process of disappearing," which, he says, is a consequence of globalization. That, he believes, is the challenge facing Emmanuel Macron: ensuring that the weak can once again benefit from France's prosperity so that they don't radicalize further.
Making Up for the Failures of His Predecessors
That is something that Macron expects of himself as well. "I will create harmony in France once again," he said during his speech at the Louvre. He also said the same to SPIEGEL in an interview shortly before the election. The cities, he said, have been the winners, but there is also the France on the periphery, which has self-doubts. "We need to bring these two parts back together. Key to this is our middle class -- they form the base of our democracy," he said.
Time is of the essence. He must now make up for the failures of his predecessors. Both Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande failed to sufficiently follow through on their grand plans. Their penchant for empty words didn't just disappoint the French, it alienated them -- from themselves, from politics and also from Europe.
Macron's predecessors constantly invoked their country's grand past, its historical legacy, but in doing so, they oddly lost sight of the present and its growing problems. Macron has promised that he will do "everything in the next five years so that there is no longer any reason to vote for extremist parties." It is a vastly ambitious challenge.
Even before he strode up to the stage that had been set up for him on the evening of his election victory, and before thanking the cheering crowd for his victory, Macron spoke on the phone with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who offered her congratulations. When he heads for Berlin next week, he will explain to her what he has planned for his country. And they will also discuss how things should proceed in Europe. Sources among his staff say that he intends to work together with her and not in opposition. In contrast to Hollande five years ago, Macron did not pose as an adversary to Germany during the campaign nor did he seek to stoke resentment during the hunt for votes. In this French campaign, it was Macron's opponents who took that route.
"Europe must protect itself better, that is what Macron wants to achieve," says one of his confidants. "But for him, being pro-European doesn't mean just putting his hands in his lap and simply waiting."
It doesn't speak well for Europe that many have already ducked into the trenches and begun firing away at the political newcomer, particularly when the desire for change is an absolute necessity. But it looks as though many in Brussels have already forgotten that this election could have turned out differently. Already, it is being said that Macron is in favor of controversial "Eurobonds," although such a demand can be found nowhere in his policy platforms. "We need instruments that allow us to react to crises within the eurozone," is what one hears from his staff.
A Wary Brussels Establishment
His reform ideas for Europe are likewise just as vague for the time being. When he speaks of a eurozone budget or of a joint finance minister, it sounds less like a proposal than like the results of a brainstorming session over how to prepare European institutions for the future. But even to these ideas, the reaction of the Brussels establishment has been wary.
Macron is well aware of the sensitivities of France's European partners and has repeatedly said that France must first "do its job" before trust between Berlin and Paris can be restored. "It's now our duty to finally follow through with reforms," he told SPIEGEL in the March interview. He has also said he sees adherence to EU budget deficit rules is a "precondition" for France's renewal and for winning back German trust. The problem, though, is that his predecessors have all said the same thing.
What is clear, however, is that Macron looks to Germany with curiosity and interest and that, throughout the brutal campaign and before, he consistently demonstrated support for Europe. Indeed, the generational change that is now taking place in France could be interpreted as an opportunity.
Perhaps a younger political leader is best able to put a stop to the symptoms of fatigue that are currently pervasive in Europe. Because what is true of France, is also true of Brussels: New impulses are badly needed. And for Emmanuel Macron, who was born in 1977, the EU isn't a sputtering experiment, but rather the only reality he has ever known. The same is true for most of those he surrounds himself with -- and with whom he won the election.
With the exception of Jean Pisani-Ferry, the 65-year-old former head of the think tank Bruegel who functions as Macron's chief economic advisor, all those within the new president's inner circle are around 40 years of age at the oldest, with many of them quite a bit younger than that. His chief campaign strategist Ismael Emelien, who was a key figure in the launch of En Marche!, is just 30 years old.
Initially, after he left his advisor post in the Élysée, Macron had intended to found a startup with Emelien and Julien Denormandie, a 36-year-old engineer who is now in charge of party organization for République en marche. Macron's appointment to economy minister put an end to those plans. The man in charge of preparing Macron's movement for the parliamentary elections and maintaining contact with representatives and candidates in the electoral districts is Stéphane Séjourné, 32. Sylvain Fort, an opera fan who graduated from the École normale supérieure, is his communications adviser. He is 45.
All of them share a preference for slim-cut, perfectly tailored suits. Benjamin Griveaux, 39, relates another characteristic they all have in common: "We are all children of the provinces and have gone to good universities. But none of us comes from the Paris upper classes."
A camera team spent half a year following the Macron team -- all the way up to the happy ending last Sunday. The resulting documentary, "Behind the Scenes of a Campaign," was broadcast the very next day. It shows how much fun politics can be away from the established party structures -- and how difficult it is to do such a thing.
In the film, just as in real life, his wife Brigitte is omnipresent. There is likely nobody left who isn't familiar with her story and where she comes from. She was a high school teacher of Macron's in Amiens, 24 years his senior. They got to know each other when they spent weeks rewriting a play together. He was just 17 when he promised to marry her -- later.
He fulfilled his promise in 2007 and now, Brigitte Macron is France's Première dame. She is cordial, elegant and funny. Shortly before her husband won the election, she said: "It would be best if Emmanuel became president now. Imagine how I will look in 2022!" With the Macrons, a couple is moving into Élysée Palace that could hardly be tighter -- something that the French are no longer used to. One recalls the stiff façade maintained by the Chiracs, who lived in separate apartments, followed by the divorces and romantic escapades of Sarkozy and Hollande.
When Emmanuel Macron speaks of his wife, he says things like: "Without Brigitte, I wouldn't be me." And: "Brigitte is a bit of me, and vice versa."
The story of Macron's political rise is mirrored by his relationship -- neither is entirely conventional and both his ambitions and his marriage are viewed with some skepticism. Is such a "not entirely normal" -- as he once put it -- relationship seemly? And can it endure? Together, the two answered their skeptics such that ultimately, nobody was surprised any longer by the fact that Brigitte was always at his side straightening his tie or even autographing copies of his book, always with a laugh. "I didn't write it," she would call out when, at some appearance or another, a line of admirers suddenly appeared in front of her.
Emmanuel Macron, who will turn 40 in December, is fond of quoting the French romantic Alfred de Musset: "I came too late into a world too old." Now, walking onto the stage of global politics as the youngest-ever president of France, it is up to Macron to prove otherwise.
- Part 1: Can Macron's Charisma Heal France and Europe?
- Part 2: Macron's Adversaries and Skeptics