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 Guardian Weekly - - Weekly review - Trans­lated by John Lam­bert

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.

Christophe Ena/Getty

Press­ing the flesh … Em­manuel Macron greet­ing res­i­dents of Saint-Martin; be­low left, with his wife Brigitte

Ralph Or­lowski/Getty

Euro­pean am­bi­tions … Macron with Ger­many’s An­gela Merkel

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