France's Golden Boy Learns How to Fight Macron Debates His Way Out of The Yellow-Vest Crisis

When faced with the anger of the yellow-vests movement, French President Emmanuel Macron was almost taken down by his own hubris. Now he has emerged from the crisis with a new fighting spirit, marking a turning point for him -- and for the country.

Laurent Chamussy/ Sipa/ action press

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It feels like he's always being hounded by this face, its smooth features, the straight nose, the pronounced jawbone. "You're posing everywhere as if you were a model for a mail-order catalogue," writes François Ruffin.

Ruffin hates the French president with a passion, and he makes no effort to conceal it.

He describes his loathing for the French president as something "physical" -- a deeply visceral reaction. And he's by far not the only one. According to Ruffin, this hate "has become a political fact."

Ruffin is a journalist and the director of an award-winning documentary. He's two years older than Macron and, like the French president, hails from the northern French city of Amiens. In his recently published book, he links Macron's personal history with his own. The title speaks volumes: "This Country That You Don't Know."

When Macron was elected president in 2017, Ruffin won a seat in parliament as a candidate for the left-wing populist La France Insoumise (Unbowed France) party. But even before that, the activist was making headlines in France. In 2016, Ruffin became the figurehead of the Nuit debout movement, in which protesters occupied the Place de la République in Paris every night. Viewed from today's perspective, this was a precursor of sorts for the yellow vest movement.

The excessive manner in which Ruffin loathes Macron currently seems like a blueprint for what is happening across the country. A wave of hatred is sweeping across France and the objects of people's ire range from "the rich," the police and the Jews, to members of parliament and, of course, Macron.

Indeed, nearly two years after his election as the youngest president in the history of the Fifth Republic, the country that he intended to unite -- as he promised on the evening of his election -- is deeply divided, perhaps now more than before.

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Macron, the man who wanted to do everything differently than his predecessor, knows that he's walking on thin ice -- and can break through at any time. At least that's what he told people close to him, and no one disagreed with them. In the past, everything always seemed to fall into his lap, but now he faces daunting challenges. He'll rise to the occasion, according to those who know him well. "Emmanuel is especially good when the going gets tough," they say.

And things have become tough in this second year of his presidency, a term in office that began -- just as he had imagined it for so long -- as a modern heroic epic.

An exceptionally talented young man won the French presidential election, against all odds, and stunned the political establishment.

At the moment of his victory, in May 2017, Emmanuel Jean-Michel Frédéric Macron, 39, stood on a stage in the courtyard of the Louvre and promised to bring the French together and overcome all differences. "I will always tell you the truth," he exclaimed. Everything seemed possible at that moment.

But nearly two years later, things now look different -- and since the magic is gone, he has to put up a fight.

A Fierce Debate

It was already dark when his official state car rolled up to the multi-purpose hall in Bourg-de-Péage, a small town behind the TGV train station of the district of Valence, in the hinterlands of southern France. The town is a perfect example of the fractures in French society that are both a symptom and a cause of the protests, organized by the so-called yellow vests, who have been hounding Macron for months. The movement, which is highly disparate, has taken aim at many things, but primarily at him. The crowd in the building that evening consisted of everyday people sitting on plastic chairs. They'd signed up for this event without knowing that the president would also be there. Some of them were wearing yellow vests.

After the riots by the yellow vests in December, Macron declared that it was time for him and his fellow citizens to engage in a "grand debate" throughout the country for two months. He spoke with pensioners and young people, mayors and prefects, and he invited intellectuals to Élysée Palace and discussed with them until two in the morning about the difference between the "narrative identity" and the "coagulated identity." He also traveled to little-known places like Bourg-de-Péage, Étang-sur-Arroux, Grand Bourgtheroulde and Souillac. Macron found himself engaged in an endless town hall meeting, in events that resembled hand-to-hand combat. The debate was his weapon, his antidote for the yellow-vest poison, and a way of appeasing those who hate him.

In Bourg-de-Péage, the treatment appeared to work. At first, he received a lukewarm welcome, but was ultimately sent off with a large round of applause, even from those wearing safety vests.

The magic still worked: If Macron can make eye contact with the enemy, he has actually already won.

Macron said: "You can speak as freely as you want, but please, you're not allowed to say things that aren't true."

And: "Listen, our constitution is not a writing workshop where millions of people can practice a bit of scribbling." And, time and again: "I hear your anger" -- "I respect your rage." And yet he made it clear that the government couldn't be held responsible for everything. "I don't have a magic wand," he said, before he passed the microphone to a man wearing a yellow vest. The activist said that he didn't even bother to vote because it made no difference anyway.

Macron quipped: "If the non-voters block the roundabouts because they're suddenly dissatisfied, then that's anything but democratic!" and received a round of applause. There he was again, the uber-performer, the stage hog. The next day, Le Monde's headline read: "Macron Is Back on the Campaign Trail." It was a compliment.

But, as in any fight, Macron's winning streak couldn't go on forever.

No Longer the Golden Child

Last weekend, right at the conclusion of his "grand débat," violence erupted again, worse than ever. Several newspaper stands were torched on the Champs-Élysées and numerous shops looted. Fouquet's, the swanky restaurant where former French President Nicolas Sarkozy once celebrated his election victory, now looks like a scene out of a disaster film. The yellow vest movement has waned since the beginning of the debates, and support for the protesters among the population has declined, but the violence remains.

That's one side of the current situation. The other is that tens of thousands of French people spent weeks peacefully talking about democratic participation, climate protection and the transition to renewable energy. They talked about what their society should look like and what policies should be made for them.

Macron's debate was a success for him personally as well. The longer he traveled through the country, listened and explained, the higher his approval rating in the opinion polls.

Photo Gallery

4  Photos
Photo Gallery: Macron Learns to Fight

"He could seduce a chair," French author Emmanuel Carrère wrote in a profile of Macron. As much as one side dislikes the man, the other admires him to no end. The French also had differing opinions of his predecessors, but with Macron it's new that these emotions swing to such extremes. And that has to do with Macron himself, even if he refuses to recognize this when asked about it.

One evening in January, the Sofitel Cairo was lit up in the three colors of the French flag. For their state visit to Egypt, Macron and his wife Brigitte were staying in the high-rise hotel on an island in the Nile. He sat in a small, stuffy room in front of a bouquet of flowers and over a dozen journalists. It's not often that people can get so up close and personal with him. He even left his security personnel out in front of the door.

As a rule, he doesn't give background interviews during trips. According to Macron, a president should speak to journalists as little as possible, as he made clear when he took office. But after initially seeking to distance himself from the press, he now increasingly has to provide explanations and correct the image that he projects to the outside world -- an image that has slipped from his control.

What have they done to him these last few months to transform this political darling, who seemed to have everything go his way, into a fighter, into someone who had to struggle even to achieve small successes?

- Monsieur le Président, are you familiar with "Polycrates' Ring," the ballad by Schiller?

He laughed and nodded. He likes such questions and finds them so much more interesting than the usual queries about the speed limit and the apartment tax. He's as fond of quoting as he is of reading.

Revenge of the Gods?

The author Philippe Besson released a novel last year, with a character named "Emmanuel M." The book was a tribute to Macron and his abilities. Last summer, the president made Besson consulate general in Los Angeles, a surprise move that irked many people, including career diplomats who would have liked to have the position themselves. Besson gives a lot of thought in his book to what it's like to be as clever and capable as Macron, and whether he more closely resembles Balzac's Eugène de Rastignac or Flaubert's Frédéric Moreau.

Or whether he's more like Schiller's Polycrates, the tyrant of Samos, who succeeds at everything he does. The ancient ruler's friend and adviser was suspicious of so much good fortune and feared that it would provoke the envy of the gods.

- Monsieur Macron, are the yellow vests the revenge of the gods?

He leaned forward and placed his hands on his knees. No, he said that evening in Cairo. He was no longer smiling. The phenomena happening in France can also be observed in other countries, he said, and pointed to the upheaval many democracies are currently undergoing.

This analysis may not be completely erroneous, but it remains incomplete in one problematic respect.

- You yourself, your style of governing, bear no responsibility for it?

For a moment, he seemed indignant, as if he were no longer used to people prodding him with questions or accosting him with contrary opinions.

No, he said abruptly. Then, in a somewhat more conciliatory tone: "I'm a child of this anger." And that's not all. There were times when he fomented this rage against "the system" that he sought to bring down with his election victory. The French are simply a very political people, Macron said, adding that "what our country needs now is calm for reflection."

The next day, he stood in the magnificent rotunda of the Egyptian presidential palace. There was a joint press conference with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Macron spoke of democracy and human rights. "The stability of a country is contingent upon liberty," he said, but it was impossible to read any reaction on el-Sisi's face. After the speeches, two questions were allowed, and an Egyptian asked, with a smug undertone, about the current state of stability in France.

The yellow vests were pursuing him all the way to Heliopolis.

A Testy Relationship with the Press

At any rate, his comments on freedom of the press prompted sarcastic remarks in the press gallery, which was primarily occupied by French journalists. Macron's own relationship with the press is ambivalent. During the scandal over one of his security officers who had beaten protesters -- an overture of sorts to the crisis mode that has marked his presidency for months -- Macon publicly accused journalists of "no longer seeking the truth." He believes it's primarily their fault that he's perceived as arrogant -- essentially because that's the way they portray him.

For a long time, he had a tense relationship with Le Monde because he didn't feel that the newspaper took him seriously during the election. But he was the one who referred to himself time and time again as an "outsider" who operated "outside the political and media system."

The media definitely played its part in his rapid rise to the top. In his two years as a minister under his predecessor, François Hollande, he attracted more attention than all the other cabinet members put together. That was his intention. While Hollande's government sank to record new lows in the opinion polls practically every week, Macron became ever more popular.

His private life was strictly private, Macron the candidate insisted, then allowed himself, his wife, grandchildren and dog to be photographed for a magazine story. As president he is exclusively accompanied by his personal photographer, and he has entrusted the rights to his images to the agency of the notorious paparazzi queen Mimi Marchand. He also closed the Salle de Presse at Élysée Palace, a room for the press that had been arranged by former President François Mitterrand. Journalists no longer had any business being there.

He is the president and he can do what he wants -- and he does in fact do many things differently than his predecessors. He even does things differently than he himself intended to do them, no matter how much thought he put into the way he wanted to occupy his office. He wanted it to be more hierarchical, more distanced -- and less gossipy and dopey than under Hollande. Eventually, however, reality kicked in and everything turned out differently.

Macron didn't herald this much talked about second phase in his presidency. His adversaries -- the haters, so to speak -- did.

His Personality is the Problem

The first year flew by in a flash. He was Emmanuel Macron, the political superstar. He underscored this image with long, solemn speeches about the future of Europe and the future of multilateralism. There was always something that he wanted to reestablish. His mandate was to be godlike, nothing less would do. The rest of the world liked this and began once again looking more often to France, and at this youthful-looking man with the grand gestures.

And it's true that Macron managed to achieve within just a few months what his predecessors had failed to do for decades: present France as a modern country and a leading European nation with ideas. The magazine Foreign Policy wrote that Macron probably ranked alongside presidents like Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterrand. The otherwise so skeptical Economist found that "France exceeded all expectations" and had essentially revamped its image.

It was a bit too much of everything -- too much praise, too much grandstanding.

The French voted for Macron because he promised an historic break with the past: tabula rasa. A brusque change from his phlegmatic predecessor who was calling Macron his "protégé" even after the ambitious young man had already launched his En Marche! movement and was openly flirting with the idea of running for president. Macron was a disruptor determined to sweep aside the establishment. He promised a transformation, democratic participation, jobs. The French, however, didn't want a leader who spoke like a manager and acted like a monarch.

Opinion polls show that two-thirds of the French electorate want him to change. His personality, not his policies, became his problem. Instead of producing an endless string of new ideas and speeches -- a personal tick of his that many, including German diplomats, find highly annoying -- it is now time for him to address the high expectations that he's raised. That's no small task. How, for example, can his nationwide debate be translated into concrete results? How can he take thousands of suggestions on board and avoid frustrating thousands of participants?

In François Ruffin's hate pamphlet, the man who has such a visceral aversion to Macron marvels at how youthful the president's face still appears. No rings under the eyes, no lines, not even a pimple, he writes. "Normally you find traces of disappointment, suffering, at least of something human in a face."

But Ruffin can rest assured that this presidency will leave its mark on Macron and his face. He's the only one capable of turning the situation around.

He has what it takes to pull it off. He now realizes that he can't govern while basking in the adulation of throngs of admirers, and now that two of his closest advisers from the election campaign days have resigned from their positions, he knows that he has to surround himself with people who tick differently than he does.

Until recently, the staff at Élysée Palace still thought the president was so brilliant he didn't have to be popular as well. But now they've gradually revised this view. They realize that it can be helpful for the electorate to agree on the challenges the president is seeking to tackle.

The European elections will take place in just a few weeks and, ever since the days when seemingly everything Macron touched turned to gold, he has said these elections are a crucial litmus test of the national mood.

So far, his La République en Marche party (LREM) has been leading in the polls, followed by Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement national. If he wins the election, he figures he will have regained the public's trust, giving him the necessary political capital to continue pursuing his plans to reform France.

On a Thursday in February, Macron stood in a sweat-soaked shirt with his sleeves rolled up and spoke to a crowd of hundreds of young people in an airless gymnasium in Burgundy. After over three hours of discussing education and nuclear power, the possibilities of representative democracy and the advantages of national referendums, everyone in the gym seemed to be totally exhausted -- everyone, that is, except one person. When his advisers motioned to him that it was time to wrap things up, he called out in their direction: "Could we please continue a little bit? Would that be possible?"

He may always have been lucky, but he also knows how to fight.

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