We're on board the TGV 8434 train from Bordeaux to Paris. Emmanuel Macron, 39, the former economics minister and current presidential candidate is traveling in second class. The air is sticky in the compartment, in part because of the camera team that is accompanying Macron at each step of the campaign. With only five weeks to go before the first round of voting, the strain is visible.
Macron has become this campaign's true sensation, rising from the status of outsider to becoming one of the candidates with the greatest prospects for election. His ascent has been helped by a scandal involving conservative candidate François Fillon, who is the subject of a criminal investigation by the public prosecutor's office over allegations he used government money to pay his wife and children for jobs they never did.
Since the allegations surfaced, Macron has taken a lead over the candidate in polls going into the first round of voting on April 23. Right-wing populist Marine Le Pen also has only a slight lead over him, and it is likely that Macron would have a clear lead on the Front National leader in a run-off vote. If he prevails, Macron would become France's youngest-ever president.
During his interview with SPIEGEL during the train ride, Macron looked a little fatigued from the campaign, but he remained attentive and concentrated throughout.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Macron, in this thrilling election campaign, you essentially came out of nowhere to become the favorite, as an independent candidate without the backing of a party. Did that surprise you? And does it create pressure for you?
Macron: If I couldn't withstand the pressure in this election campaign, I would have had no business becoming a candidate. And no, the fact that I have come so far doesn't surprise me. I have considered everything: If I didn't believe I could win, I wouldn't have bothered with this whole venture.
SPIEGEL: Even if you had wanted to, you couldn't have anticipated that criminal proceedings would be initiated against conservative candidate Fillon. You also couldn't have predicted that the Socialists would field an unviable candidate.
Macron: But I did know that the political system as we know it -- and as I came to know it as a minister -- is running on empty. Something new was needed. Had we not founded the En Marche! political movement in April, the outcome of the primary elections probably would have been totally different -- both among the conservatives and the Socialists.
SPIEGEL: When did it become clear to you that you would run?
Macron: I basically knew when I launched "En Marche!" My speech at Maison de la Mutualité in Paris, our first major event, was a tremendous success. This led me to resign from my minister post and declare my candidacy in November.
SPIEGEL: Why are you so convinced that it's you that your country needs?
Macron: France, of course, doesn't need anyone. I don't believe in saviors. But the way in which our country is governed needs to change radically. That starts with the politicians and goes right up to our electoral system and beyond. What we need is a fundamental renewal. I am offering the French this renewal. My movement has nothing to do with the almost hermetically sealed political landscape we have known up until now.
SPIEGEL: Around the world, voters are turning against the establishment, the elite -- and in France, the elite political class is particularly pronounced.
Macron: There's much to criticize, that's true. Our political system encourages that. We don't have proportional representation. There's little renewal in our political class and it's always the same faces. There's also a lack of morals -- it's one affair after the other. A system like that cannot be successful.
SPIEGEL: Why should we believe that you will be any different? You were also economics minister under François Hollande and you attended an elite school.
Macron: Still, I'm not a classical politician -- I don't command the usual established rhetoric of daily politics. I am committed to taking a different approach to things. I want voters to be able to trust the people they have voted for again. That's why we want term limits. No more conflicts of interest! The incomes of elected officials must be transparent.
SPIEGEL: You've been traveling across the country for weeks now. What kind of France are you experiencing?
Macron: I am constantly encountering an immense energy. Even though people often assume the opposite, the French want to build something up, to create something. You can feel a vitality that apparently goes unrecognized all too often. You just don't see it in the French media. But, of course, there is also a lot of uncertainty, anxiety about the future and sometimes a longing for a past that may not even have existed. And there is often a feeling of being left behind.
SPIEGEL: Who feels like they are being left behind?
Macron: The big cities are the winners in France. They have no problems. Go to Lyon, Marseille or Bordeaux -- that's where the successful people are. People there know how to deal with globalization. But there is also the France at the periphery, a rural France plagued with doubts. We need to bring these two parts back together. Key to this is our middle class -- they form the base of our democracy. We cannot lose them -- we must support them.
SPIEGEL: It's in this skeptical France that Marine Le Pen and her Front National are particularly successful. How do you intend to gain ground there?
Macron: I am trying to spread optimism and represent an opposing view from all those who want us to isolate ourselves. During my election appearances, I don't always just talk about the reforms our country needs to undertake and how that will be painful. That's been the talk for the last 30 years. I don't believe that France is capable of reform -- at least not in normal times. Fortunately, we are experiencing exceptional circumstances at the moment. It is a moment in which everything is possible.
SPIEGEL: And you believe your window of opportunity has arrived?
Macron: Exactly. I believe we find ourselves in a period of radical transformation. Regardless of whether it is digitalization, the environment or terrorism. We can be successful in this new world. We have the necessary willingness. The French are inventive and innovative. But we need to finally pick ourselves up.
SPIEGEL: What would your first official act be as president?
Macron: Three major reforms: The labor market must be opened, we need improved vocational training programs and the school system needs to support equal opportunity again.
SPIEGEL: More concretely: How would your style of governing differ from that of your predecessors?
Macron: Both Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande more or less suffocated their cabinets. I would handle it differently. A president should not govern. He should transcend partisan lines, delegate to those responsible and appoint the right people. Nor should he act as though he were responsible for everything or as if he could handle it all on his own. Above all, a president is a guarantor of the institutions. He sets the overall direction.
SPIEGEL: You are campaigning as an avid pro-European. Isn't that risky? Marine Le Pen is very successful with her attacks on Europe.
Macron: I am defending Europe, but I am not naïve when it comes to its mistakes. There is also a Europe that isn't working. But you cannot cede that criticism to the anti-Europeans. For 10 years now, we've been providing them with more and more room. It's always the same discussion: first Grexit, then Brexit. We simply look on as Hungary and Poland ride roughshod over European values and we do nothing about it. The mutual inability to propose something ambitious for Europe to our citizens is exhausting the European dream. There have always been several countries, an avant-garde, who want to proceed. That prompted, at the initiative of Germany and France in 1951, the European Coal and Steel Community, the basis for European unity.
SPIEGEL: You would advocate for a core Europe with a tighter degree of union?
Macron: We need much deeper integration within the eurozone. A multispeed Europe has long been a reality and we shouldn't even attempt to push all countries to move forward in unison. That was a major mistake of the past years. We haven't further developed the eurozone because we feared scaring the British and the Poles. And what did that lead to? Britain voted to leave anyway and Poland is now telling us that Europe is a horrible thing. We have lost a lot of time.
SPIEGEL: What's the solution?
Macron: We need a joint finance minister and a permanent head of the Euro Group. We also need to take a close look at European institutions, make adjustments to them and also make them viable for the future. The principle has to be that no member state should be excluded from the outset, but also that no member state can prevent others from proceeding. And the impetus for this needs to come from France and Germany.
SPIEGEL: In recent years, the balance within the EU has been shifting more and more. Germany has become more important and France less so.
Macron: We will not whip Europe back into shape if France doesn't do its job. It's now our duty to finally follow through with reforms. France must restore its credibility by reforming the labor market and getting serious about its budget. At the same time, we, together with Germany, must stimulate growth again. I believe that the next five years will be decisive for our future, perhaps only the next three. Now, in 2017, we have an election year -- in France and in Germany. After that there are three years without elections in which we need to shape Europe.
SPIEGEL: Who would you prefer to work with -- Angela Merkel or Martin Schulz?
Macron: It's my motto not to interfere with others. Conducting politics in my own country is sufficient for me.
SPIEGEL: How would you judge François Hollande, the most unpopular president in modern French history?
Macron: I want to win the election in order to get the country in shape for the future. I'm not available at the moment for assessing the past.
SPIEGEL: What would happen if you were to lose the election and Marine Le Pen instead became president?
Macron: Our country would become impoverished. If France left the EU, both our competitiveness and our purchasing power would be reduced. It would likely lead to riots across the country. Le Pen would demolish Europe and the eurozone. I take her and her policy platforms very seriously. I fight against them every day because I believe they are wrong for our country. They would cause damage to both our fellow citizens and our businesses. An election victory for Marine Le Pen would have serious repercussions for France.
SPIEGEL: And how do you think the populists should be dealt with?
Macron: Whatever happens, we can't cede them the battlefield! Look at what is happening to us here. The conservatives are copying Front National. They are forgetting their principles. They are trying in this way to win the election at any price. Nicolas Sarkozy already tried to do that in 2012 and it failed back then as well. They take people for idiots -- it's really dramatic.
SPIEGEL: Speaking of the conservatives. In Germany a person who is the subject of criminal proceedings like François Fillon would hardly be able to continue his campaign. Why are things different in France?
Macron: I think it is the product of the difference between Protestant and Catholic culture. Among us Catholics, a person commits a sin and then confesses -- and all is forgotten again because the person apologized.
SPIEGEL: Will the French forgive Fillon?
Macron: I'm not someone who holds a neutral view on this. But I do believe that many of my compatriots are disturbed by Fillon's behavior. He believes that the rules that apply to others do not apply to him. It is precisely this type of politician that the French are sick of.
Brigitte Macron, the candidate's 63-year-old wife, enters the train compartment and sits down silently, wearing jeans, a light blue cashmere sweater and a blond pageboy haircut. She accompanies Macron to almost all of his campaign events and is the "anchor in his life," as a new book about the pair's relationship describes it. Brigitte Macron was a teacher at Macron's high school in Amiens and she was married with three children. She left her husband to live with Macron. The couple married in 2007.
SPIEGEL: In recent weeks, there have been targeted attacks on your private life. The claim was made that you are gay and that you lead a double life. You confronted these allegations directly at a campaign event.
Macron: I had wanted to address these rumors for a long time. It is always better to call things by their name so that you eliminate any room for stories like that. I approached the whole thing with a bit of irony and that also put an end to it.
SPIEGEL: Did you agree on that strategy with your wife?
Macron: Did we talk about it Brigitte? No, I don't think so.
Brigitte Macron: No, I didn't know he was going to do that. You know, he thinks entirely independently at this point.
SPIEGEL: The fact that a younger man is married to a woman who is a few years older is ...
Brigitte Macron: Thank you for this formulation, it's very nice of you -- a few years ...
SPIEGEL: ... who is precisely 24 years older, still appears to shock a lot of people, even in 2017. Have you gotten used to this or does it hurt your feelings anew each time you encounter it?
Macron: You know, if I were together with a woman who was 20 years younger than me, then no one would consider it strange in any way. The opposite is true -- they would all think it was great. But I have never lived my life based on what other people might think about it.
SPIEGEL: So, you are able to just distance yourself from all the malice and rumors?
Macron: Of course, there are hurtful moments -- the worst are not the ones that affect you, but ones that affect other family members. But you have to distance yourself from it, otherwise you would be unhappy. At some point we decided not to let the ignorance of others get to us.
SPIEGEL: And does it work?
Macron: Yes. Brigitte and I are immunized from this kind of maliciousness.
SPIEGEL: How would you describe yourself five weeks before the first round of voting? More euphoric or more nervous?
Macron: How did a famous French rugby trainer once put it? I'm calm, I'm at peace with myself and I am very determined. But a lot could of course happen -- there are many risks.
Macron: Doubts that could suddenly overcome the French people.
SPIEGEL: That you're too young for the office, for example?
Macron: Not only that. We could also make mistakes. The next month will be decisive.
SPIEGEL: In contrast to your competitors, you do not have a solid group of core voters that has consolidated over years to back you.
Macron: I don't lose any sleep over that. All the better. It means that I have to convince French voters with content and ideas. Left and right? These ideas originated in yesterday's world.
SPIEGEL: Your comments that the French colonial era was a crime against humanity sparked a lot of anger. Have you since become more cautious about what you say and how you say it?
Macron: I like to say things the way they are. I thought very precisely about my words about Algeria.
SPIEGEL: Yeah? But you also delivered extensive explanations afterward.
Macron: I thought it was necessary because I hadn't counted on such reactions. I didn't know that this issue still remains so painful for the French. I neither will nor want to resort to empty phrases -- that's a disease among politicians.
SPIEGEL: Do you already know where you will be on May 7, the day of the run-off vote?
Brigitte Macron: Emmanuel and I will vote in Le Touquet. The mayor there is already nervous about all the security precautions. After all, it's just a small seaside resort on the northern French coast.
Macron: That evening we will be in Paris at the headquarters of En Marche! With all my staff.
SPIEGEL: And the next time we meet will be in Elysée Palace?
He doesn't answer. He takes a quick look around and then pats his hand on his own forehead.
SPIEGEL: What are you doing?
Macron: If you can't knock on wood
SPIEGEL: Mr. Macron, Mrs. Macron, we thank you for this interview.