The man who loves to shake your hand
Six months after becoming French president, is Emmanuel Macron a political miracle or just a fading mirage, wonders Emmanuel Carrère
The man does not perspire. I discovered that on 12 September, on the island of Saint-Martin, a French territory in the Caribbean that had been devastated a few days earlier by Hurricane Irma. Uprooted trees, roofs ripped from houses, streets blocked by mountains of debris: for three hours Emmanuel Macron, president of France, has been walking through what remains of the village of Grand Case in the sweltering, clammy heat amid the strong odour of burst sewage pipes – or in other words, of shit. Everyone accompanying him, including the author of these lines, is dripping with sweat, literally soaked, with large circles under their arms. Not him. Although he hasn’t had a second to change or freshen up, his white shirt with elegantly rolled-up sleeves is impeccable. And so it will remain until late in the night, when the rest of us are exhausted, haggard and reeking, and he’s still as fresh as a daisy, always ready to shake new hands.
Every interaction with Macron follows the same protocol. He turns his penetrating blue eyes on you and doesn’t look away. As for your hand, he shakes it in two stages: first a normal grip, and then, as if to show that this was no ordinary, routine handshake, he increases the pressure while at the same time
Just three years ago, this young man was totally unknown to the general public
intensifying his gaze. He did the same thing to Donald Trump and it almost turned into an arm wrestle. Then, with his other hand, he clasps your arm or shoulder, and when the time comes to move on, he relaxes his grip while lingering almost regretfully, as if pained to cut short an encounter that meant so much to him. This technique works wonders with his admirers, but it’s even more spectacular with his enemies. Contradiction stimulates him, aggression galvanises him. To those who complain that the state took its time bringing relief, he explains calmly and patiently that the state does not control extreme weather and that everything that could be anticipated was anticipated. At the same time – and we’ll come back to this “at the same time” – he never stops repeating, just as calmly, just as patiently: “I came to Saint-Martin to hear your anger.”
And it’s a good thing, too, because up comes an angry woman named Lila, who bars his way and accuses him of not giving a damn about the victims’ suffering, and of coming “just to perform” before the television cameras in his ironed shirt and plain tie that doesn’t look like much but must have cost a fortune. She’s so vehement that the islanders who have gathered around them start booing and jeering and saying that’s no way to talk to the president. Anyone else would have taken advantage of the situation and said: “You see, the people are behind me.” Not Macron. For him, Lila is a challenge. He takes her hand and his face divides in two – something I’ve often seen it do: the right half, brow creased, is determined, grave, almost severe, giving you the feeling that whatever he does, he’s doing it in the eyes of history. The left half, meanwhile, is cordial, optimistic, almost mischievous, giving you the feeling that now he’s there, things will be all right.
For five, 10 minutes, he soaks up Lila’s wrath. He has a schedule he has to stick to, and his team’s in a hurry, worried about running overtime – and they will run overtime, they always do. Nevertheless, it’s as if he has all the time in the world, and in fact he does: he’s the boss. One wonders if he’ll win over Lila, who, now feeling self-assured, growls cockily: “I’m a bit of a pain in the ass.” To which he responds with his most charming smile: “I admit that didn’t escape my attention.” Good one: she smiles back, she’s going to back down, she backs down. Then at the last moment, as they shake hands before parting, she has second thoughts and says: “Let go of my hand, damn it! Let go of my frigging hand!”
For me this “Let go of my hand!” was like a desperate attempt to cling to her anger – and her integrity. To escape the president’s hypnosis, his persuasiveness worthy of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, his almost frightening seductiveness. Watching him, I was reminded of the opening credits of The Young Pope, in which Jude Law, dressed in an immaculate cassock, advances across the screen as if on a cloud, in slow motion, weightless, and at one point turns and winks at the camera. Macron winks often. He did it to me. In any event, no matter what you think of him, whether you see his rise as a political miracle or a mirage destined to fade away, everyone agrees: he could seduce a chair. The professional commentators who started to drop him after just a few months of his presidency can keep calling him a powdered marquis, a megalomaniac with royal pretensions, a rich man’s president or a communicator without a cause, but he couldn’t care less. The people, by contrast, with whom he is directly, physically in contact, are his bread and butter. Anyone who’s had their hand shaken by Macron is lost to the opposition: they’re destined to vote Macron and to convert to Macronism. But you can’t shake hands with everyone in the country. And anyway, just what is Macronism?
Let’s take another look at his file: just three years ago this young man was totally unknown to the general public. By contrast, he was very well known to a small Parisian milieu in which politics, finance and the media are almost incestuously intertwined. In this milieu, everyone prides themselves on being his friend, having his phone number, and getting upbeat text messages from him in the middle of the night. At 30, he’s an investment banker at Rothschild & Co – in this line of work, you can’t do any better. At 34, he joins the cabinet of then president François Hollande as deputy secretary general.
Just two years later this young man is minister for the economy, industry and digital affairs. Hollande adores him: he’s the ideal son who’s so good at charming his elders that a big name in the Socialist party calls him the “old folks’ man”. The old folks in question, his mentors, tell him that if he wants to make a career in politics he has to choose a constituency, run for office and become an elected deputy: that’s how it’s always been done. Macron thanks them for the advice, but doesn’t run: he’s not interested in doing what’s always been done.
The presidential election approaches. By all accounts it will play out between the Socialist left burdened by Hollande’s morose five years in office, the right caught up in fratricidal quarrels, and the eternal populist wildcard that has borne the name of Le Pen for the past 40 years: business as usual. Then, in April 2016, exactly one year before the election, the young and dashing minister of the economy announces to a sparsely filled room in his home town of Amiens that he is creating his own party, En Marche! – with an exclamation mark. It will take some time before the commentators figure out that the initials EM also stand for the name of this young man about whose ambitions and convictions little is known. One month later he hands in his resignation to a confused Hollande, and leaves the government. Even if his intelligence and charisma are generally recognised, no one at this point would put a penny on his winning the presidential election. Or almost no one, that is. To the first people who attend his meetings and join his party, Macron repeats like an incantation that they will
remember it all later, like those who joined De Gaulle in London in 1940: they were there, right at the start of the adventure.
And what an adventure! This is a guy who only runs for a single office in his entire life, that of president of the republic, and wins. A guy who understands that the parties that have structured French public life since the end of the second world war are clinically dead, and that it is time to offer the French something new. What we’re seeing, he maintains, is a clash between old and new, navel-gazing and openness, routine and audacity, conservatism and progress – and it goes without saying that he, Macron, embodies progress, openness, audacity, the new. He says he’s neither on the right nor the left – although saying that usually means you’re on the right. So wouldn’t it be more accurate to say he is on the right and on the left at the same time?
And here we are again, back at the famous “at the same time”. This banal, everyday expression has now become practically unusable in France, except as a running joke. For a normal French person today, saying “at the same time” is already making a joke about Macron, who has raised this speech mannerism to the level of a philosophical position. As soon as he thinks something, he says to himself that you can also think the opposite, that other people think the opposite and that you have to see things from their point of view. When adopted as a general principle, this “at the same time” quickly gets us to the old centrist utopia: overcoming rifts, choosing the most open and the most competent people from each camp, governing in the centre, bringing people together. Many have dreamed about what in the last century was still called “the third way” between economic liberalism and social democracy. But in recent years, no one has been able to revive it, until Macron appeared with his stainless self-assurance and phenomenal good fortune.
At 39, Macron becomes the youngest head of state in French history, and an international star. The country’s entire political class is dumbfounded. Stunned, former president Nicolas Sarkozy is said to have commented with disconcerting humility: “It’s me, but better.”
Just after he was elected, François Hollande said he would be a “normal” president. France, ungrateful, wasted no time in finding that “normal” wasn’t a quality they wanted in a leader. Macron, who saw his predecessor get bogged down and systematically takes the opposite stance, announces that he’ll be a “Jupiterian” president.
Such ambitions give one pause for thought. The same goes for Macron’s decision to do away with the traditional televised Bastille Day interview, on the grounds that the questions put by the journalists risked not doing justice to the new head of state’s “complex complex thoughts”. thoughts . The words “complex complex thoughts” were the butt of a good many jokes, but they weren’t uttered by accident. Placed in quotation marks, they were approved by his communication experts, and one imagines that “complex thoughts” is the new name for thoughts “at the same time”, thoughts that view reality from on high and take account of its many facets. In the same way, in Macron’s entourage there’s no longer any talk of “reforming” the country, but straight up “transforming” it. That, incidentally, was one of the first things he said to me: “If I don’t radically transform France, it’ll be worse than if I did nothing at all.”
But still, aside from glorifying Macron’s personality, what is Macronism about? Six months after his election, the question feels more and more pressing. The new president gained power thanks to his charm, and by offering offer the country a breath of optimism it badly needed. need Like Britain, France was once a world power. pow It dreams of regaining that status, and he promises prom that with him it can; that if France follows him, it will become as seductive and competitive as he, he Emmanuel Macron, this young president and envy e of the world.
For Fo several months we really did feel good about ourselves, but now it seems that this Prince Charming Charm effect is dissipating. The number of French Frenc people who approve of Macron has plunged from 66% to 32% since the elections – a historic drop. Why? Because a statesman who really wants to ma make things happen will inevitably become unpopular? unpo That’s what he says, and it’s true. Because Becau he promised to act fast and he is acting fast, and because to do that he is willing to force through his policies? Because his labour law reform, fast-tracked by executive decree, better suits bosses than workers? Because by scrapping the wealth tax he’s favouring the rich? Because, although his campaign focused on overcoming divisions, he’s increasingly moving rightwards in a way that shocks voters on the left? A bit of all of that, and above all, a hint of arrogance and class contempt. When he criticises “slackers” and those who “kick up bloody chaos”, it’s the poor and unemployed who feel targeted. And when he talks about train stations where “the successful cross paths with those who are nothing”, no one hears what he surely meant to say: that inequality saddens him and that he’s trying to reduce it. No, everyone hears that the unsuccessful are nothing in his eyes.
I spent a week with Macron and his entourage to report this article, and as it was a week of travelling – to Athens and then to Saint-Martin – my conversations with Jupiter took place, logically enough, in the sky. All power elicits courtlike phenomena, which you can observe at leisure in the presidential plane. But this court is hyper-cool, because the president’s inner circle is made up of young people who, at 30, have jobs you can normally only get at 50, if at all, and who, while never ceasing to be total control freaks, have all adopted the boss’s direct, easygoing style. Yet, as easygoing and direct as he is, the boss never forgets the historic dimension of his role, and it’s in this made-to-measure suit that he goes on his first official visit to Greece.
‘If I don’t radically transform France, it will be worse than if I did nothing at all’
What’s at stake, and in my view what makes the trip such a challenge, is that the president must tell the Greeks things they want to hear – namely, that their cause will be taken up with Germany – while saying nothing that risks rubbing Angela Merkel the wrong way. When I share this fledgling idea with him, he deflects the question. (Admittedly, I didn’t exactly expect him to say “You’ve hit the nail on the head.”) Nevertheless, he doesn’t mince his words: “The Greek crisis was a European crisis, a European failure even. Instead of punishing its leaders for their lies, we punished the people of Greece, whose only mistake was to listen to these lies. The rifts produced in Europe by this crisis are deep, and that’s why I have to go to Athens: to return to the source, to talk about democracy.”
Talking about democracy is what he did on the Pnyx, the hill in the centre of Athens where in ancient times the assembly of citizens raised their hands to vote on the city’s laws and budget. From there you can see over to the Acropolis, and in the early evening light it was a scene of stunning beauty. Almost 60 years earlier André Malraux, a great writer and minister of culture under General de Gaulle, delivered on the Pnyx one of the memorable and nebulous speeches that were his trademark, and you can’t help feeling that Macron intends to situate himself in this tradition – that of the visionaries and not the managers, the philosophers and not the bureaucrats.
He started by breaking the ice in a particularly effective way with a two-minute preamble in Greek. And, speaking as someone with a smattering of modern Greek, I can tell you that’s no mean feat. Then he launched into his favourite topic: Europe, and the sovereignty of the European peoples, which he doesn’t want to leave, he says, to the faint-hearted, fearful clan known as sovereigntists – those rightwing populists who want to shut out the world and retreat into splendid isolation.
Half an hour of fine rhetoric leads up to the oratorical climax: “Look at the time that we are living in: it is the moment of which Hegel spoke, the moment when the owl of Minerva takes flight.” Macron doesn’t explain the metaphor; no doubt he overestimates his audience’s level of philosophical sophistication. Minerva is the goddess of wisdom, and the owl is her symbol; this owl, Hegel says, waits for night to fall before flying over the battlefield of history. In other words, philosophy can’t keep pace with events. “The owl of Minerva,” he continues, “provides wisdom but it continues to look back. It looks back because it is always so easy and so comforting to look at what we have, what we know, rather than at the unknown …”
Later that evening I told Macron that I had really liked his speech, and he looked at me with intense gratitude, as if no one’s opinion could mean more to him. Then I said, without meaning any harm, that I had also very much liked the speech given by his host, the Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras. In a flash, his blue eyes clouded over and he turned away: other, more pressing matters called. Still, I had been sincere. I thought his speech was very fine indeed. What’s more, it’s not every day that you hear a head of state appealing to the authority of Hegel. Since Mitterrand, we have forgotten what it’s like to have a cultivated president. The day after his speech on the Pnyx, there was a lunch with Greek intellectuals. These Greek intellectuals were ardently Francophile, and quoted one great French poet after the next. With each poem Macron was able to pick up where the other person had left off, reciting the next verses without missing a beat. Baudelaire, Rimbaud, all by heart: it’s hard not to believe that this man really likes poetry. Such mastery is intriguing: you start looking for the flaw, the chink in his armour. Macron has political enemies, but there’s not much gossip that circulates about his personal life. According to one rumour, he’s gay. His wife and he denied it with elegance and good humour, and without making a big thing of it.
When I asked the president’s office for permission to accompany and interview Macron, it went without saying that he would not read the piece prior to publication. The one condition: that I send them the sentences I quote Macron as saying. This is customary in the press, and protects the person being interviewed from journalistic extrapolations. But it also protects the journalist against the interviewee’s bad faith: once he had approved the sentences, the interviewee can’t then turn around and say he didn’t say them, or that they were misrepresented. In theory, I had no problem with such an arrangement, but in practice, I do. I’ve got several dozen pages of notes in front of me, jotted down during a half-hour interview on the flight to Athens, and an hour-long one on the way back from the Caribbean. And in all of my notes, in my view, there’s only one really strong, really beautiful sentence – and this really strong, really beautiful sentence, this sentence that rings true, was off the record. In its place I was given permission to use a perfectly dull, perfectly formatted variant, which I will spare you.
By default, then, here are some samples of the president’s words: “I believe our country is on a cliff edge, I even think it’s in danger of falling. If we weren’t at a tragic moment in our history, I would never have been elected. I’m not made to lead in calm weather. My predecessor was, but I’m made for storms.” And: “France isn’t cynical, but the elites think it is. France isn’t made to be a postmodern country.”
I listen to him saying such things – they’re quite interesting and in any event he says them well. His voice is youthful and smooth, his sentences fluid, natural, persuasive. Sometimes I can’t help smiling to myself, for example when he says he’s a “metic” – the ancient Greek word for a foreigner accorded some of the privileges of citizenship – in the world of politics and the media. That’s the word he uses, “metic”, and you can see why it gives rise to smiles when it’s used to describe Emmanuel Macron. Why not “pariah” while we’re at it? So I listen, half under his spell – OK, let’s say three-quarters. And I remember the comment made by my fellow writer Michel Houellebecq: “I tried to do an interview with him … Frankly,
You need only see him and his wife together for half an hour to know that part of him is as true as can be
getting people who talk very well to say something real, something true, is like pulling teeth … ”
I continue to look for the flaw. Everyone has one – a place of shadow and secrecy, a melancholic zone – and as a writer, my job is to see them. With Macron, they don’t exactly jump out at you. Nonetheless, I’m sure they exist, or rather, I hope they exist. So I ask him what he thinks. The question throws him off a bit. He reflects, hesitates, then: “My flaw? Maybe that I’m claustrophobic …” He remains pensive, and for the first time I hear something like three dots between the words that file from his mouth in battle formation. “… Not in the physical sense: I don’t have any listed phobias, but I’m claustrophobic about life. I can’t stand being shut in, I have to get out, that’s why I can’t have a normal life. Deep down, my flaw is no doubt that I don’t love normal life.”
To a certain extent, that’s a good thing: the life of someone who wants to – and does – become president of the republic cannot be normal. And the interaction you have with him can’t be normal either. But I don’t let up, and go at the question from another angle. Philippe Besson, a French writer who knows him well, wrote a book about him aptly called Un Personnage de Roman, or “a character from a novel”, which contains the following description: “This man, so warm, so physical, who knows so many people and whom so many people know, has no friends.” Is that true? He’ll go on to answer that it’s not exactly true, that although he has few real friends, he does have some, and that his private life is absolutely essential for him. But before he says these reasonable things, before reflecting at all, he blurts out: “My best friend is my wife!”
It’s tempting to see Macron as a sort of cyborg, a seducing machine completely void of emotion. It’s tempting, but no sooner has it occurred to you than you’re obliged to think the opposite. Because there’s no getting around the fact that the young, ambitious technocrat, the man who tells everyone what they want to hear, is also, at the same time, the hero of a grand love story. I think this story is what the French like most about him, particularly French women. It’s a kind of revenge for centuries of patriarchy during which everyone found it normal for a man to be 24 years older than his wife, but not the other way around. And, taking this breach of convention to the extreme, the woman who is 24 years older than him seems perfectly at ease, and her husband loves her as much as when they first met.
Let’s go over the file once again, from this almost mythological angle: Brigitte Auzière teaches a theatre class at a Catholic school run by Jesuits in Amiens. The 15-year-old Macron enrols, and falls head over heels in love with her. It takes him two years to win her heart. A high-school student who falls in love with his pretty teacher and ardently pledges his love to her isn’t all that rare. What’s rarer is when, 22 years later, the high school student and his former teacher are still together, and the high school student is president of France.
I observe them on the flight to Athens. They’re in the central block of the Falcon 7X jet, and from what I can see from where I’m sitting three metres away, they touch each other non-stop. Their eyes seek each other out, find each other, often they hold hands. It’s remarkable, moving even. But still: they display this intense closeness, this insatiable need for each other, as if they were forever posing for celebrity magazines. So you wonder: is some of this for show? Carefully staged storytelling? Maybe, but what would it be masking? What truth? What pact? When everything looks so harmonious on the surface, you can’t help looking for the catch. At the same time, it seems clear that you can’t fake this sort of thing – not for that long, not all the time. You can go back and forth endlessly about how much of Macron’s personality is authentic and how much is cooked up, but you need only see him and his wife together for half an hour to know that part of him is as true as can be, and that this element of truth is her.
I sat with Brigitte Macron on the way back from Athens, and started off our discussion on quite a bad note, because I was still puzzling over the question of flaws and melancholy. Clearly her husband views his life in terms of destiny, I said. That’s true, she confirmed. But since any real destiny must imply adversity and even defeat, I went on, I wondered what form adversity and defeat could take in the life of someone like Emmanuel Macron, and how she, his wife, imagined the proverbial retreat from Russia that necessarily awaited him – because if such a fate didn’t await him, he would not be a great man, not a hero. The more I proceeded with my gloomy, interminable question, the more Brigitte’s face, usually so open and buoyant, showed signs of dismay. But she’s not someone to succumb to a passing mood for long. Glasses of champagne arrived just in time: it was the birthday of Tristan, one of her young staffers. At her prompting everyone burst into a chorus of “Happy birthday to you!” After that she said to Tristan, with a laugh and a shake of her blond hair: “We’re your present!”, and it struck me that that must have gone down just as well in her classes in Amiens.
Coming back to my question, she let me know kindly that both she and her husband faced their share of adversity. “I can’t honestly say we’ve had to deal with defeat, but we’ve had our share of adversity. To live a love like ours, we’ve had to harden ourselves against malicious remarks, mockery and gossip. We’ve had to stand shoulder to shoulder, be courageous and joyful.” And she was joyful when she said it, just as joyful – and likable – as everyone told me she would be. (Everyone loves her.)
To wind up our conversation, she told me a charming story about her theatre class. She and the young Macron are looking for a play to stage together. There’s one they like, by the Neapolitan playwright Eduardo De Filippo – already quite a demanding choice. The problem is that the play only has five characters, and there are 25 students in the class. No problem: the young Macron rewrites it, inventing the 20 missing roles. They still have a video of the performance that Brigitte would like to watch one day – but, she says, her husband has asked her to wait so they can view it together.
Like many people I know, I’ve witnessed three phases with Macron. During the campaign, I thought: “Something’s happening.” When the elections rolled around, I thought: “I’d like to see him win.” At the same time, I knew that my vote was a class vote: it was normal for privileged people to vote for Macron. And now that he’s in power, I think: “It would be good if he succeeds.” But what would that entail? That he makes history? That he transforms France? That he turns it into a country of startups where everyone is their own entrepreneur, and the only thing that matters is efficiency? And that after that, he transforms Europe, because at some point France is just going to seem too small for him?
All of that is possible. Or rather: not impossible. He could also go crazy – that’s a risk you run when you get so much power so fast. Or, quite simply, he could fail, and join the crowd of ambitious politicians who sought the “third way”, stumbled over messy reality, and wound up administrating like everyone else. That’s his big worry, I believe. That’s what makes him say: “If I don’t radically transform France, it’ll be worse than if I did nothing at all.” In the meantime, he is ready to write roles for the whole country, provided Brigitte and he will be directing the play.
Pressing the flesh … Emmanuel Macron greeting residents of Saint-Martin; below left, with his wife Brigitte
European ambitions … Macron with Germany’s Angela Merkel