LE BIG MAC

In his first year as French pres­i­dent, Em­manuel Macron has over­seen a grow­ing econ­omy, has be­come de facto leader of Europe, and has even won the re­spect of Don­ald Trump. But many in France re­main unim­pressed by the man they see as a ‘pres­i­dent for the ri

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - Lara Mar­lowe in Amiens and Paris

Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron likes to con­vince peo­ple. In man­ner and method, he is un­like his pre­de­ces­sors. Ni­co­las Sarkozy ca­joled and bul­lied. François Hol­lande just gave up. Macron fixes in­ter­locu­tors with his intense blue stare and builds a Carte­sian ar­gu­ment. If that doesn’t work, he starts over, pa­tiently, but with de­ter­mi­na­tion.

The past week has tested the young pres­i­dent’s pow­ers of per­sua­sion. Early in the hours of April 14th, Macron used his con­sti­tu­tional power as com­man­der in chief for the first time, join­ing the US and Bri­tain in launch­ing cruise mis­siles against three chem­i­cal weapons in­stal­la­tions in Syria. The goal, Macron said later, was to con­vince Bashar al As­sad and Vladimir Putin that the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity was more than a “nice” and “weak” body they could push around.

In a fur­ther ex­er­cise in per­sua­sion, Macron vol­un­teered for a com­bat­ive, 2½ hour live tele­vi­sion in­ter­view on Sun­day night, dur­ing which he made the sur­pris­ing claim that, “Ten days ago, Pres­i­dent Trump said the US would pull out of Syria. We con­vinced him it was nec­es­sary to stay for the du­ra­tion.”

The White House later is­sued a statement say­ing Trump’s view had not changed, and the French pres­i­dent made an em­bar­rass­ing climb­down on Mon­day, claim­ing he “never said” the US or France would re­main mil­i­tar­ily en­gaged in Syria for the long term.

Per­haps Macron, whose nick­name is “Jupiter”, is threatened by hubris, the sin of pride that af­flicted Greek gods.

The rest of the week was one long at­tempt to con­vince Euro­peans and the French of the right­ness of his po­si­tions. Macron – who has be­come the de facto leader of Europe – re­ceived the heads of the three Baltic states who have teamed up with five other north­ern EU coun­tries, in­clud­ing the Nether­lands and Ire­land, to thwart his ef­forts to fur­ther in­te­grate the euro zone.

Then, be­fore a more sym­pa­thetic au­di­ence at the EU par­lia­ment in Stras­bourg, Macron pleaded with pro­po­nents of lib­eral democ­racy to wake up and op­pose the pop­ulist au­thor­i­tar­i­ans who deny Euro­pean val­ues. Macron then trav­elled to Ber­lin in yet an­other ef­fort to en­list Ger­man chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel’s sup­port for his Euro­pean re­form agenda.

On Mon­day, Macron will go to Wash­ing­ton for a three-day state visit, the first of Trump’s pres­i­den­tial term. Al­though the two men have clashed on cli­mate change, the Iran nu­clear ac­cord, trade pro­tec­tion­ism and the rise of Euroscep­ti­cal pop­ulism, Trump ap­pears to have been charmed by the young pres­i­dent, who says Franco-Amer­i­can co-oper­a­tion is cru­cial in the fight against ter­ror­ism.

As the first an­niver­sary of Macron’s elec­tion ap­proaches on May 7th, and a half cen­tury af­ter the May 1968 rev­o­lu­tion, a dif­fer­ent kind of spring is flow­er­ing in France. For the first time in decades, the coun­try is re­vers­ing its post sec­ond World War de- cline, and the per­sua­sive Macron is turn­ing France into the world’s great­est soft power.

There is, of course, dis­con­tent. It wouldn’t be France if there wasn’t. This week Macron also con­fronted strik­ing rail­way work­ers in the Vos­ges, telling them to “stop tak­ing peo­ple hostage.” The coun­try is strug­gling through a rolling strike over the re­form of the SNCF rail­way com­pany.

And de­spite Macron’s best ef­forts to re­as­sure them, many in France sus­pect their young pres­i­dent is out to de­stroy the fa­mil­iar but dys­func­tional “French so­cial model”. In their eyes, Macron is push­ing France into the chasm of sav­age, race-to-the bot­tom cap­i­tal­ism.

So what do they make of him in his home town? The Ir­ish Times trav­elled there to find out.

Je­suit school

Macron was born in Amiens, the cap­i­tal of Pi­cardy, 40 years ago and lived here un­til just be­fore his 17th birth­day. From age 11 to 16, he stud­ied at the Je­suit school La Prov­i­dence.

Built in the grace­less con­crete style of the 1950s, “La Pro” is an ele­men­tary, se­condary and tech­ni­cal school for 2,000 pupils, spread over sev­eral acres. Aside from oc­ca­sional cru­ci­fixes, cal­en­dars of Pope Fran­cis and por­traits of St Ig­natius of Loy­ola, the reli­gious foot­print is light. The teach­ers are lay peo­ple. The priest vis­its only once a week now.

Not a sin­gle plaque or pho­to­graph records that the pres­i­dent and first lady of France passed through these cor­ri­dors. Yet this is where Macron asked to be bap­tised at the age of 12, and where, at 15, he fell in love with his fu­ture wife, a French and drama teacher called Brigitte Trogneux Auz­ière.

Macron has al­ways been drawn to older peo­ple. His ma­ter­nal grand­mother, Ger­maine “Manette” Nogues, died in his arms five years ago, at the age of 97. The Protes­tant hu­man­ist philoso­pher Paul Ri­coeur was a spir­i­tual fa­ther to him; the pro­gres­sive so­cial­ist mil­lion­aire Henry Her­mand his po­lit­i­cal men­tor. “He’s at­tracted by knowl­edge, by peo­ple who have ex­pe­ri­ence,” his neu­rol­o­gist fa­ther, Jean-Michel (67), says over lunch in Amiens.

‘More ma­ture’

At La Pro and sub­se­quently at Henri IV, France’s lead­ing ly­cée and prep school in Paris, Macron of­ten stayed af­ter class to talk to teach­ers.

Marc De­fer­nand (78) taught Macron his­tory and ge­og­ra­phy here, and was prin­ci­pal of Macron’s sec­tion. “He was more ma­ture than other stu­dents,” says De­fer­nand. “He al­ways asked a lot of ques­tions. Some­times he would pick up a con­ver­sa­tion we’d started eight days ear­lier, ex­actly where we’d left off.”

In the au­tumn of 2016, De­fer­nand queued in a lo­cal book­shop to ask Macron to sign his au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal man­i­festo,

Révo­lu­tion. The re­tired ed­u­ca­tor is moved, re­call­ing what hap­pened. “He grabbed me by the hand and said, ‘Mon­sieur De­fer­nand! It’s so good to see you!’” Macron in­scribed the book: “To Marc, this ‘ Rev­o­lu­tion’, which owes more to him than he knows. In friend­ship, Em­manuel.”

We visit the 700-seat the­atre where Em­manuel Macron and Brigitte Trogneux Auz­ière adapted a play by Ed­uardo De Filippo to­gether.

“He was dy­na­mite,” De­fer­nand says. “I told him that if he con­tin­ued, he would be the Gérard Philippe of the 21st cen­tury. It was dif­fi­cult for oth­ers to act in the same play with him. In the same way, it’s dif­fi­cult for his cabi­net min­is­ters now.”

De­fer­nand wasn’t aware of the re­la­tion­ship at the time, though he knew Macron went of­ten to Auz­ière’s house. “I as­sumed there was a flirt be­tween him and her daugh­ter Lau­rence,” he says.

The scan­dal of a mar­ried teacher with three chil­dren hav­ing an af­fair with a stu­dent nearly 25 years her ju­nior has been trans­formed into ro­man­tic leg­end. Ev­ery­one would rather for­get the trauma.

“Je­suits never pried into peo­ple’s pri­vate lives. There was no moral­ity in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” De­fer­nand says. “There were un­mar­ried teach­ers liv­ing to­gether at the time. I was more wor­ried about stu­dents tak­ing drugs.”

The fact that Brigitte con­tin­ued to teach at La Pro for years af­ter her lover’s de­par­ture, and then trans­ferred to Ly­cée St Louis de Gon­zague when they be­gan to live to­gether later in Paris, is fur­ther ev­i­dence of tol­er­ance, De­fer­nand says.

A tragic love story, known to most French peo­ple, oc­curred a quar­ter-cen­tury ear­lier and helped pave the way for Macron and Auz­ière.

School­teacher Gabrielle Russier (32) had an af­fair with a ly­cée stu­dent half her age, Chris­tian Rossi, in Mar­seille. The youth’s par­ents filed a com­plaint against the teacher and had their son placed in a men­tal hos­pi­tal. Russier was given a sus­pended prison sen­tence and took her own life. The story be­came the sub­ject of books, films and songs. Asked about it at a press con­fer­ence, former pres­i­dent Georges Pompidou fa­mously quoted a poem by Paul Elu­ard that was sym­pa­thetic to women ac­cused of hav­ing slept with Ger­man sol­diers dur­ing the war.

The his­to­rian Jean- Françoi s Sirinelli com­pares the Russier and Macron sto­ries in his book Les Révo­lu­tions françaises, to show how much France evolved in a sin­gle gen­er­a­tion. “Gabrielle Russier takes her own life in 1969. Em­manuel Macron and his teacher start an af­fair in the 1990s, and in May 2017, Brigitte Macron be­comes first lady of France.”

Macron’s par­ents learned of the af­fair by chance. “My wife was much more up­set than I was,” Prof Macron says. “It may sound ma­cho, but I thought he’d get over it. He didn’t . . . I thought it was a lit­tle early. It wasn’t the way I en­vi­sioned life, but it wasn’t my life. I raised my chil­dren to be free and in­de­pen­dent.”

The Macrons didn’t con­sider fil­ing charges against Brigitte Auz­ière, but they asked to meet her. “I was req­ui­si­tioned to im­pose au­thor­ity,” Prof Macron laughs. “I told her, ‘He’s a mi­nor. I want him to com­plete his stud­ies. Af­ter that, he’s free to do what he wants.’”

The pres­i­dent’s par­ents have been hurt by press re­ports that they sent their son to Paris to get him away from Auz­ière. “He was go­ing to go to Henri IV any­way. It was planned,” Prof Macron says, none­the­less ad­mit­ting that per­haps Em­manuel “went a lit­tle early”.

At La Pro, I ask a class of 14-15 year-olds, Macron’s age when he met Brigitte, if they could fall in love with a teacher. The teenagers laugh and say yes. “If it hap­pened to some­one our age, it would shock me,” says a stu­dent called Gré­goire. “But now that he’s an adult, it doesn’t bother me.”

The stu­dents say it’s “cool” that Macron is pres­i­dent. “He was elected be­cause there was Marine Le Pen,” pipes in Ay­oub, of north African ori­gin. Per­haps par­rot­ing their par­ents’ opin­ions, the youths ob­ject to ris­ing taxes and praise the ap­point­ment of cabi­net min­is­ters who are not pro­fes­sional politi­cians. For the fu­ture, they pre­dict fly­ing cars and tell me France will never know full em­ploy­ment.

On a scale of one to 10, they give the young pres­i­dent an ap­proval rat­ing of seven. “He has to prove him­self,” one ex­plains. Like France, Macron’s suc­ces­sors at La Pro are wait­ing to see.

Blood­lines

The Amienois may seem blasé about their pres­i­dent, but his fa­ther at­tributes this at­ti­tude to the “tac­i­turn, re­served” char­ac­ter of Pi­card peo­ple. The re­gion par­tic­u­larly suf­fered in both world wars, has a mis­er­able cli­mate and has been dec­i­mated by de-in­dus­tral­i­sa­tion.

His son is an atyp­i­cal Pi­card, “an ex­tro­vert” in­fused with the sun of the southwest on the side of his mother, Françoise Nogues-Macron.

His­tory and blood­lines led me to Macron père, to find out more about the family’s English an­ces­try. In February, Macron spent an evening with the Pres­i­den­tial Press As­so­ci­a­tion. As the rep­re­sen­ta­tive for for­eign jour­nal­ists, I was part of the

trag‘ A ic love story, known to most French peo­ple, oc­curred a quar­ter-cen­tury ear­lier and helped pave the way for Macron and Auz­ière

wel­com­ing party. I gave him a sepia post­card of English sol­diers in Amiens in 1918.

Macron stud­ied the pho­to­graph closely. “You know, they found me an English great grand­fa­ther,” he said with a laugh, star­ing at the post­card. “He was called Ge­orge Robertson.” The pres­i­dent scru­ti­nised the English faces for a long mo­ment. He was look­ing for a face that re­sem­bled his own.

To­wards the end of last year’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, Brigitte Macron men­tioned to Bri­tish jour­nal­ists that her hus­band had a great grand­fa­ther called “Mr Robertson from Bris­tol”. The Lon­don Times, Mir­ror and Daily Mail re­searched the story and told the Macrons more than they had ever known about “Mr Robertson”.

Ge­orge William Robertson was born in Bris­tol in De­cem­ber 1887, and is be­lieved to have fought in the Bat­tle of the Somme. Dis­tant rel­a­tives in Eng­land have pre­served his war medals.

Robertson mar­ried Macron’s great grand­mother, Suzanne Le­blond, in the town of Abbeville, 40km from Amiens, in 1919. They had three daugh­ters. The mid­dle daugh­ter, Jacqueline, born in 1922, was Em­manuel Macron’s pa­ter­nal grand­mother.

“He dis­ap­peared from one day to the next,” Prof Macron told me. “No one in the family ever heard from him. Suzanne raised three daugh­ters alone. She kept a very mod­est gro­cery shop in Abbeville. My par­ents sent me to live with her and my aunts for two years as a child.”

The failed mar­riage to an English­man “was never, never talked about. The family kept no trace of him. I never saw a pic­ture,” Prof Macron continues. Ge­orge Robertson mar­ried again, set­tled in east Lon­don and kept a gro­cery shop, like his ex-wife, Suzanne. A step-daugh­ter told the Mir­ror that he liked to sing Roses of Pi­cardy, which he had learned in the trenches.

Had a butcher from Bris­tol not fought in the Somme, mar­ried a French­woman and fa­thered her chil­dren, Em­manuel Macron would not ex­ist, would not be pres­i­dent of France to­day.

Pre­co­cious­ness

Macron’s in­tel­lec­tual pre­co­cious­ness and his re­la­tion­ship with Brigitte meant he “skipped his ado­les­cence”, his fa­ther says. In the au­tumn of 1993, three months short of his 17th birth­day, the fu­ture pres­i­dent moved to a gar­ret near the Ly­cée Henri IV in Paris.

He con­tin­ued his re­la­tion­ship with Brigitte. “When I went to see him in his cham­bre de bonne, some­times he called through the door for me to come back later,” Prof Macron laughs. “I knew she was there with him.”

Chris­tian Mon­jou taught Macron Amer­i­can and Bri­tish civil­i­sa­tion for three years at Henri IV. Though he did not know about the ro­mance, Mon­jou no­ticed that Macron raced off to Amiens the mo­ment classes ended on Satur­day. “It was a case of ‘the di­vided self’,” Mon­jou says in an in­ter­view in his book-lined study.

Macron ob­tained his bac­calau­réat with hon­ours, but twice failed the en­trance exam for the École Nor­male Supérieure, which trains French aca­demics. It was the only fail­ure of his life. Had it not been for the dis­trac­tion of ro­mance with Brigitte, Mon­jou says, Macron would have suc­ceeded in the exam and be­come an aca­demic.

Against all odds, Brigitte Macron even­tu­ally di­vorced and moved to Paris to live with Em­manuel. They mar­ried in 2007. “With­out her, I would not be me,” Macron said dur­ing the cam­paign.

Macron went on to earn a doc­tor­ate in phi­los­o­phy, then re­ori­ented his life to­wards pol­i­tics with de­grees from Sciences Po and the École Na­tionale d’Ad­min­is­tra­tion ( ENA). “He used fail­ure as a launch­ing pad,” says Mon­jou. “That is typ­i­cal of a leader.”

“Have you brought your hel­met and bul­let­proof vest?” the taxi driver who takes me to the Whirlpool clothes dryer fac­tory in north Amiens asks. It’s a joke, of course, but the “Whirlpools” are no­to­ri­ously hos­tile. A year ago, Marine Le Pen promised their fac­tory would not close if she be­came pres­i­dent. Macron ig­nored ad­vice and plunged into the crowd of an­gry strik­ers, say­ing, “If you lis­ten to the se­cu­rity guys, you’re dead.”

The fac­tory will move to Poland at the end of May. Most of the 290 work­ers have been promised re­train­ing or jobs build­ing “in­tel­li­gent” re­frig­er­a­tors by the fac­tory’s new owner. But they’re still an­gry. On the day I visit, man­age­ment pro­posed a clothes dryer in lieu of a sev­er­ance bonus.

‘Aright-wing guy’

“Macron, Macron. He’s not a god. We’re los­ing jobs. We don’t give a damn about Macron,” François Gor­lia, the in-house union leader, tells me on the phone when he re­fuses to come to the gate to talk to me.

“He’s a right-wing guy. Ev­ery­thing for the rich. Noth­ing for the poor,” Sibylle (39), an assem­bly line worker says as she ar­rives for the 1pm shift. She’ll ben­e­fit from Macron’s investment in train­ing for the job­less, but she isn’t con­vinced. “Train­ing is fine and dandy, but there are no jobs.”

Af­ter lunch in a sim­ple bistro, Macron’s fa­ther Jean-Michel guides me through a maze of streets un­der con­struc­tion, to the mu­sic conservatory where his son stud­ied pi­ano for nine years. When he failed the conservatory exam af­ter his first year, Macron’s mother told his bi­og­ra­pher Anne Fulda, the boy in­sisted on hav­ing the same ex­am­iner the sec­ond year, an early sign of his de­ter­mi­na­tion to con­vince. He played well, Prof Macron re­calls, mas­ter­ing Bach’s dev­il­ishly dif­fi­cult Gold­berg Vari­a­tions.

Prof Macron gives me the ad­dress of the mod­est, two-storey brick bun­ga­low where Em­manuel and his two sib­lings grew up, and where the neu­rol­o­gist still lives with his sec­ond wife. “It’s not Neuilly,” Macron père says laugh­ing, re­fer­ring to the Bev­erly Hills- like Paris sub­urb where Ni­co­las Sarkozy came from. Though they are both doc­tors, Macron’s par­ents earned low, pub­lic sec­tor salar­ies. “They weren’t neu­ro­sur­geons with pri­vate jets,” com­ments a pres­i­den­tial ad­viser.

The Trogneux choco­late shop, near the cathe­dral in cen­tral Amiens, is where Brigitte Macron’s family have made choco­lates and mac­a­roons for five gen­er­a­tions. They also own the lo­cal Re­nault deal­er­ship.

Black-and-white pho­to­graphs of suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tions of the Trogneux choco­late dy­nasty hang inside the shop. There is no pho­to­graph or men­tion of Brigitte Trogneux Auz­ière Macron. Jean- Alexan­dre Trogneux (57), the first lady’s nephew and god­son, agrees to be pho­tographed, but re­fuses to talk about the pres­i­den­tial cou­ple. “We’ve made it a golden rule,” he says. “We don’t talk about them and they don’t talk about us.”

Fa­bien Doré­mus (32) heads the po­lit­i­cal book sec­tion of a shop in cen­tral Amiens. Macron’s Révo­lu­tion sold more than 400 copies there, an “enor­mous” num­ber, Doré­mus says. He had no de­sire to read it, and dis­misses the book – and Macron – as “all slo­gans and clichés”. A former jour­nal­ist whose lo­cal on­line news­pa­per failed for lack of fund­ing, Doré­mus is close to the far left party France Un­bowed.

Since Macron’s elec­tion, Doré­mus says, “I’m not op­ti­mistic for work­ers, pen­sion­ers and peo­ple who need pub­lic ser­vices. I am very op­ti­mistic for the rich.”

The book­seller men­tions var­i­ous left-wing griev­ances against Macron, aris- ing from a hand­ful of dis­parag­ing re­marks since 2014: Macron re­ferred to slaugh­ter­house work­ers who were los­ing their jobs as “il­lit­er­ate”; Macron told a heck­ler wear­ing an anti-Macron T-shirt, “The best way to buy a suit is to get a job”; Macron called pro­test­ers against his labour re­forms “slack­ers” and ac­cused strik­ers of want­ing to foutre le bor­del, or wreak havoc.

It’s hardly “let them eat cake”. But the pres­i­dent has been hanged and burned in ef­figy by pro­test­ers. “You have to put your­self in the place of the peo­ple who get told they are slack­ers and free­loaders,” Doré­mus says. “He’s con­temp­tu­ous of the lower classes. Peo­ple started hat­ing him be­cause they feel dis­re­spected.”

An­other crit­i­cism, made by Macron’s former teach­ers, is that his speeches are of­ten so long and in­tel­lec­tual that they can be dif­fi­cult to fol­low.

Im­age

And at­tempts to con­trol the pres­i­dent’s im­age can be coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. The nov­el­ist Em­manuel Car­rère was given exclusive ac­cess to the pres­i­dent and first lady. In two in­ter­views with Macron, there was “one re­ally strong, beau­ti­ful sen­tence”, Car­rère wrote in the Guardian. “And this re­ally strong, re­ally beau­ti­ful sen­tence was off the record. In its place I was given per­mis­sion to use a per­fectly dull, per­fectly for­mat­ted vari­ant.”

In the course of a day in Pres­i­dent Macron’s home town, there is not a sin­gle pho­to­graph of him to be seen.

Brigitte Fouré, the city’s mayor, tells me the poverty rate is two per­cent­age points higher than the na­tional av­er­age, and 80 per cent of in­hab­i­tants qual­ify for so­cial hous­ing. Amiens is di­vided be­tween dis­ad­van­taged north and mid­dle-class south. It was ruled by a com­mu­nist mayor for 18 years in the 1970s and 1980s.

Macron spent less than 17 years in Amiens, Fouré notes. He “went up” to Paris nearly a quar­ter of a cen­tury ago. “Peo­ple here don’t know him. A lot of peo­ple are proud that the pres­i­dent is from Amiens, but that’s it. There has never been a real re­la­tion­ship be­tween him and the city. There is no emo­tional tie.”

Entourage

On a beau­ti­ful spring day, the Élysée Palace feels light years away from dreary Pi­cardy. The top-floor of­fice of a close pres­i­den­tial ad­viser has a view over the gar­dens and the Eif­fel Tower in the dis­tance.

Macron’s entourage is com­prised mostly of fer­vently de­voted young men with back­grounds sim­i­lar to his own. No one at the Élysée, other than the pres­i­dent, can be quoted by name. “Our rule is that no one gets in­di­vid­ual credit for any­thing,” the ad­viser ex­plains.

The ad­viser re­port­edly thought up the slo­gan used by Macron when Trump pulled out of the Paris ac­cord on cli­mate change, “Make our planet great again!” But he re­fuses to con­firm this. “We work col­lec­tively. Ev­ery­thing we do be­longs to the pres­i­dent.”

The ad­viser counts a resur­gence of French pride as Macron’s great­est achieve­ment so far. “It’s been a long time since the French have been proud to be French, in the eyes of the world,” he says. Though it con­tra­dicts my ex­pe­ri­ence in Amiens, the statement rings true. Most peo­ple in the pro­fes­sional mi­lieus of Paris adore Macron and are proud of his pres­i­dency.

A few doors from the pres­i­dent’s of­fice,

I have faith in the generic sense of the term. If one doesn’t be­lieve in one’s lucky star, in good for­tune, in one’s coun­try, one doesn’t do what I’m do­ing

the ad­viser lists Macron’s “im­por­tant vic­to­ries”: the re­vi­sion of the labour code and the tax­a­tion of cap­i­tal in­vest­ments; the over­haul of the coun­try’s ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem; changes to the EU’s posted work­ers di­recti ve; end­ing the gi­ant squat at Notre-Dames-des-Lan­des and dis­man­tling the nu­clear re­ac­tor at Fessen­heim. The last two is­sues had fes­tered for decades. “They seemed im­pos­si­ble for any pre­ced­ing ma­jor­ity,” the ad­viser says.

Macron is do­ing as much for the dis­ad­van­taged as for the rich, the ad­viser in­sists. “We have in­creased ba­sic pay­ments to the poor, the dis­abled and the el­derly. We’re de­creas­ing so­cial charges on lower salar­ies. The pen­du­lum has swung much more to­wards the least ad­van­taged than the most priv­i­leged.”

So why isn’t that mes­sage get­ting through? Why do polls in­di­cate that a ma­jor­ity con­sider Macron the “pres­i­dent of the rich”?

For one rea­son, the ad­viser says. “He was an investment banker. What’s more, at Roth­schild; the most sym­bolic bank in the world. For many peo­ple, that proves his com­pe­tence. The thing that makes him hated by some is the rea­son why he is re­spected by oth­ers.”

Be­cause Macron worked for four years as an investment banker, “ev­ery­thing he does that is per­ceived as right-wing or for the rich is blown out of pro­por­tion”, the ad­viser says.

“And ev­ery­thing he does for the un­der­priv­i­leged, that would be seen as left-wing, is dis­counted. It’s a prob­lem of per­cep­tion.”

Opin­ion polls can be read two ways. An Ifop-Fidu­cial poll pub­lished on April 10th gave Macron a 55 per cent ap­proval rat­ing, high for France, 11 months into a pres­i­dency. But a BFM poll pub­lished four days later showed that 44 per cent of vot­ers are “disap- pointed”.

Nine years of pi­ano and the rigour of France’s best schools have honed Macron’s pow­ers of con­cen­tra­tion. On April 17th, he took ques­tions from MEPs in Stras­bourg for three hours, with­out notes, with­out so much as jot­ting down a ques­tion – a reg­u­lar performance for Macron.

“He is some­one with a great ca­pac­ity of at­ten­tion and con­cen­tra­tion,” says Mon­jou. “Peo­ple who’ve met him of­ten tell me they were struck by the in­ten­sity with which he looks at them, as if, for the time they are with him, they are all that matters.”

“When you talk to him, it is as if he is down­load­ing your brain,” says a former cabi­net min­is­ter who some­times ad­vises Macron.

Geral­dine Byrne-Na­son, now Ire­land’s Am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions, is doubt­less the Ir­ish of­fi­cial who knows Macron best. She be­came friends with the fu­ture pres­i­dent when both were “sher­pas”, re­spon­si­ble for brief­ing and ac­com­pa­ny­ing Ir­ish and French lead­ers to EU sum­mits, be­tween 2012 un­til 2014. Byrne-Na­son rep­re­sented the taoiseach’s of­fice, Macron the Élysée Palace.

“We spent hours and hours in cor­ri­dors through the night while the heads of state and gov­ern­ment were locked in meet­ings,” Byrne-Na­son re­calls. “Em­manuel would be one of my first points of re­pair. If you’re go­ing to be there for seven hours, you want some­one in­ter­est­ing to talk to.”

Byrne- Na­son calls Macron “an in­sider-out­sider” who has mas­tered the sys­tem but is able to re­gard it with de­tach­ment. “He has a healthy dis­re­spect for bu­reau­cracy, and Brus­sels is the home of process and pro­ce­dure,” she says. “In that re­gard, we were kin­dred spir­its. There was a slight im- pa­tience with the weight of slow-turn­ing wheels.”

Macron was par­tic­u­larly un­der­stand­ing of Ir­ish dif­fi­cul­ties dur­ing the bailout, Byrne-Na­son says. She be­lieves he was re­spon­si­ble for sup­port of­fered by then pres­i­dent François Hol­lande.

Byrne-Na­son sent glowing re­ports about Macron’s po­ten­tial to Dublin, long be­fore he be­came a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date. Last Septem­ber, she lis­tened to what she calls his “ex­traor­di­nary speech in favour of in­ter­na­tional co-oper­a­tion and law” at the UN Gen­eral Assem­bly. “It was po­etic. It was pow­er­ful. It lit up the place.” Ire­land could have signed off on ev­ery word, Byrne-Na­son says, call­ing Macron “a su­per­star pres­i­dent who gen­er­ates both re­spect and in­flu­ence here amongst the 193 coun­tries of the UN”.

If Macron were Ir­ish, he might be a hy­brid of Pres­i­dent Michael D Hig­gins and Taoiseach Leo Varad­kar: part po­etic in­tel­lec­tual, rooted in left-wing Chris­tian­ity and fas­ci­nated by ideas; part dy­namic young lib­eral, de­ter­mined to make the econ­omy flour­ish.

When Chris­tian Mon­jou was Macron’s teacher at Henri IV, he says Macron talked a lot about the Fabi­ans, the cen­tre-left Bri­tish in­tel­lec­tu­als who founded the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics. The Fabi­ans be­lieved in “the in­evitabil­ity of grad­u­al­ness, the idea that ev­ery­thing that is grad­ual you won’t be able to go back on,” Mon­jou says. “It is to­tally anti-French, with our tra­di­tion of rev­o­lu­tion, not evo­lu­tion.

“French po­lit­i­cal life is sat­u­rated in ide­ol­ogy,” Mon­jou continues. “With Macron, there is some­thing you might call em­pir­i­cal or prag­matic. It’s fa­mil­iar to an An­glo-Saxon, but it stands out in France. I sus­pect this slightly An­glo-Saxon ap­proach may come from lis­ten­ing to me for three years.”

Macron’s ad­viser stresses he is more than a mere prag­ma­tist who would be con­tent to solve one prob­lem af­ter an­other. “The two legs of Em­manuel Macron are ac­tion and re­flec­tion,” he says. “He al­ways does both.”

Macron’s en même temps mantra seeks to rec­on­cile ir­rec­on­cil­abables, such as lib­er­al­ism and so­cial pro­tec­tion. The chal­lenge is most ob­vi­ous in his self-de­scribed “hu­mane but re­al­is­tic” immigration pol­icy. Mea­sures such as the Col­lomb cir­cu­lar, which au­tho­rises po­lice to search emer­gency shel­ters for il­le­gal migrants, have alien­ated some of Macron’s clos­est al­lies.

In 1997, Macron’s spir­i­tual fa­ther Paul Ri­coeur de­liv­ered a lec­ture ti­tled For­eigner Myself. Ri­coeur cited Leviti­cus, about “the stranger that dwelleth with you”, and the Gospel of Matthew, which says: “I was a stranger and you took me in.” Op­po­nents of Macron’s tough immigration pol­icy say he has be­trayed Ri­coeur’s ideals. The crit­i­cism must sting, but Macron be­lieves that un­less he calms fears of un­lim­ited mi­gra­tion, ex­treme right-wing pop­ulists will con­tinue to gain ground, in France and across Europe.

The ne­ces­sity of end­ing the “so­ci­ety of status” in which family back­ground, ed­u­ca­tion and pro­fes­sion de­ter­mine all as­pects of one’s life, “gives co­her­ence to ev­ery­thing we are do­ing”, says the pres­i­den­tial ad­viser.

“When you’re poor in France, you stay poor be­cause you can’t bor­row money to buy the car you need to get a per­ma­nent job,” the ad­viser ex­plains. “You dare not aban­don the benefits of be­ing a civil ser­vant, even if you have other op­por­tu­ni­ties. Get­ting a CDI [per­ma­nent job con­tract] is the holy grail. If you have one, you won’t give it up to start a busi­ness.”

‘Flex­i­cu­rity’

Philippe Aghion, who teaches eco­nomics at Har­vard, the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics and the Col­lège de France, has greatly in­flu­enced the pres­i­dent’s eco­nomic think­ing.

Con­trary to Thomas Piketty, the French au­thor of the best-sell­ing Cap­i­tal in the 21st Cen­tury, Aghion and Macron be­lieve that in­creas­ing so­cial mo­bil­ity, not high tax­a­tion, is the most ef­fec­tive way of re­duc­ing in­come in­equal­ity.

Aghion wants to wean France off its post- sec­ond World War re­liance on the Key­ne­sian wel­fare state, in which gov­ern­ment spend­ing stim­u­lates de­mand. He is in­spired by John May­nard Keynes’s ex­act con­tem­po­rary, the Aus­trian-born econ­o­mist and Har­vard pro­fes­sor Joseph Schum­peter, who be­lieved that in­no­va­tion and tech­ni­cal progress are the ba­sis of a pros­per­ous econ­omy.

Aghion’s the­o­ries un­der­lie Macron’s re­form of the French labour code last year, and the on­go­ing re­form of pro­fes­sional train­ing. It is, Aghion ad­mit­ted in an in­ter­view, a lib­eral eco­nomic pol­icy. But, he in­sists, it is also a so­cial pol­icy.

Schum­peter be­lieved in cre­ative de­struc­tion, “which means you con­stantly have new jobs re­plac­ing old jobs, new firms re­plac­ing old firms”, Aghion says. It’s a hard sell to a French pub­lic that craves se­cu­rity and is ad­verse to change.

Aghion ad­vo­cates Dan­ish-style “flex­i­cu­rity” that com­bines labour mar­ket flex­i­bil­ity with un­em­ploy­ment benefits and re­train­ing for laid-off work­ers. “In a nut­shell: in­no­va­tion, so­cial pro­tec­tion and so­cial mo­bil­ity. That’s the tri­an­gle you want to achieve,” he says. Lis­ten­ing to him is like hear­ing Macron speak.

Macron’s par­ents were left-lean­ing ag­nos­tics who did not bap­tise their chil­dren. At the age of 12, prob­a­bly un­der the in­flu­ence of his sur­round­ings at La Pro, Macron asked to make his First Com­mu­nion. A black-and-white pho­to­graph pro­vided by one of his teach­ers, Gérard Banc, shows the fu­ture pres­i­dent mak­ing his pro­fes­sion of faith.

Macron’s in­tel­lec­tual af­fil­i­a­tion has been with the Chris­tian left, with Ri­coeur and Es­prit magazine, for which he wrote a half-dozen ar­ti­cles, and whose board he sat on. French me­dia in­ter­preted ges­tures at Macron’s cam­paign ral­lies as signs of mys­ti­cism, for ex­am­ple when he asked his fol­low­ers to “show benev­o­lence”, or ended ral­lies Christ-like, with out­stretched arms. On the night of his elec­tion, he con­cluded his speech in front of IM Pei’s glass pyra­mid at the Lou­vre with the words, “I will serve you with love”.

Sec­u­lar­ism

Dur­ing his evening with the Pres­i­den­tial Press As­so­ci­a­tion, I asked Macron if, 28 years af­ter his bap­tism, he still has faith. Per­sonal be­lief is a taboo sub­ject in sec­u­lar France. Em­bar­rassed laugh­ter rip­pled across the room, but he ad­dressed my ques­tion.

“I be­lieve in some­thing we don’t see, yes,” Macron said. “I have faith in the generic sense of the term. If one doesn’t be­lieve in one’s lucky star, in good for­tune, in one’s coun­try, one doesn’t do what I’m do­ing. I be­lieve in a form of tran­scen­dency.”

Fol­low­ing Macron’s April 9th speech to French bish­ops, left­ists and Freema­sons ac­cused him of at­tack­ing la laic­ité, which has been France’s of­fi­cial pol­icy of state-en­forced sec­u­lar­ism since 1905.

“We share the con­fused feel­ing that the link be­tween church and state has been dam­aged, and that it is as im­por­tant to you as it is to me to re­pair it,” Macron said. The pur­pose of laic­ité was “cer­tainly not to deny spir­i­tu­al­ity” he ar­gued. “For bi­o­graph­i­cal, per­sonal and in­tel­lec­tual rea­sons, I have the high­est opin­ion of Catholics.”

There is some­thing Je­suit­i­cal, in­deed mon­k­like, about Macron. Un­like his pre­de­ces­sors, he shows no need to eat, sleep or chase women. Asked what has been the “great­est trial” of be­ing in of­fice, the French pres­i­dent said he has “mea­sured the weight and the soli­tude and the end of in­no­cence” that come with power.

“I do not think it is a trial,” Macron con­tin­ued. “The French have au­tho­rised me to do what I com­mit­ted to do. One thing is cer­tain. There is no respite, which may ex­plain why I some­times look pale. I do not feel au­tho­rised to en­joy any form of leisure. I take time to re­flect. I read and write. But in the times we live in, there is no room for respite. That may be the trial of power, though I don’t live it as such. There is un­de­ni­ably a form of as­ceti­cism.”

Macron sees his rise to power as the re­sult of a trou­bled epoch. “I don’t for­get where I come from and why I am here to­day,” he said. “I am the fruit of a form of bru­tal­ity in his­tory, of a break- in, be­cause France was un­happy and un­easy. If I for­get that for one mo­ment, it will be the be­gin­ning of the trial.”

Macron told a heck­ler wear­ing an anti-Macron T-shirt, ‘The best way to buy a suit is to get a job’; Macron called pro­test­ers against his labour re­forms ‘slack­ers’

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: YOR­GOS KARAHALIS/BLOOMBERG/GETTY, FRAN­COIS MORI/AFP/GETTY, CHRISTOPHE MORIN/BLOOMBERG/ GETTY, LARA MAR­LOWE, ANNE-CHRIS­TINE POUJOULAT/AFP/GETTY, GÉRARD BANC

Clock­wise from above: French pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron with his wife Brigitte; Jean-Michel Macron and Françoise Nogues-Macron at their son’s in­au­gu­ra­tion; with US pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump at the Élysée Palace; Macron with former Ir­ish am­bas­sador to France Geral­dine Byrne-Na­son; a rail­way work­ers’ protest in Paris; and the fu­ture pres­i­dent mak­ing his pro­fes­sion of faith, at Ly­cée la Prov­i­dence in Amiens, at the age of 12.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.