Emmanuel Macron: The French president in four acts

A portrait of the newly re-elected leader of France, from the scandal of a youthful relationship to his brilliant career in public service and crafty maneuvering to occupy the Élysée

Elecciones en Francia 2022
Macron climbing the steps to hold a rally with his supporters on April 16 in Marseille.Soazig de la Moissonniere
Enric González

The newly re-elected president of France arouses admiration and hatred in equal doses. He is the teenager who fell in love with a 39-year-old teacher and was loved back in return, the Rothschild banker, the man who betrayed former president François Hollande, the pianist, the technocrat, the lover of poetry and theater, and the seducer. This is the portrait of Emmanuel Macron, 44, in four acts:

The man

Emmanuel Macron was born in Amiens on December 21, 1977, the son of Jean-Michel, a doctor and professor of neurology, and Françoise, a general practitioner. He was the oldest of three brothers.

The man and the character were born 15 years later, towards the end of 1992, when the schoolboy fell in love with Brigitte Auzière, born Brigitte Trogneux, his French and drama teacher. The love was reciprocated. The teacher was 39 years old, married to a well-known local banker, and one of her daughters was Emmanuel’s classmate.

It’s hard to overstate the impact of such an unconventional (and currently criminal) relationship in a relatively small, provincial city like Amiens, with a population of around 130,000. Brigitte’s family owned the most famous bakery in town. Emmanuel’s parents were doctors. They all knew each other. The Macrons tried to end the matter by sending their son to Paris. It was useless: Brigitte separated and visited Emmanuel on weekends. For her, Emmanuel was “a Mozart,” a boy who dazzled her with his intelligence and maturity. For him, Brigitte meant and still means everything.

Still a minor, Emmanuel Macron broke with his family and with his hometown. He and Brigitte took on the world. It remains an indestructible union. The current president of France does not have great friends or confidants: Brigitte is enough for him. Without Brigitte, Macron cannot be understood.

Several people who know Macron (as far as it is possible to know someone who is essentially hermetic) agree that he is a man who lives out his life as a fictional character, in search of increasingly sensational challenges and adventures. That craving is likely related to the taboo that was broken in 1992.

“I think he would have liked to be a writer or an actor, and he applies his dramatic talent to politics as well as to his own life,” says Gaspard Gantzer, who was his classmate at the National School of Administration and then at the Elysée Palace: Macron was an adviser to president François Hollande, Gantzer was the press officer.

Macron is a seducer capable of charming almost anyone. He sleeps very little, his memory is extraordinary and his capacity for work almost unlimited. “We are talking about a very, very brilliant man,” says Manuel Valls, France’s prime minister when Macron was economy minister.

“He knows how to be cold when it suits him and he maintains his cool at all times, but he tends to take a positive approach to things and is capable of being very thoughtful and caring,” says Gantzer. All the people consulted agree in underlining two virtues of Macron: physical courage, which has more than once made him face hostile crowds (and get out of it thanks to his charm), and audacity. He was a good corporate banker at Rothschild. In that job, he learned to take risks and jump at any opportunity.

"Where others see charm and friendliness, I have failed to see anything other than superficiality and narcissism," says a conservative politician who prefers not to be quoted.

The traitor

Emmanuel Macron is haunted by the shadow of Eugène de Rastignac, the most famous social climber in French literature. Rastignac appears in several novels by Honoré de Balzac: he is a hustler who prospers in finances thanks to his lover’s husband; he marries his lover’s daughter and achieves a good position in Parisian society. “All politicians have something of Rastignac,” concedes Manuel Valls. “And the French system favors personality-driven ventures.”

Macron, during his campaign trip to Marseille, on April 16.
Macron, during his campaign trip to Marseille, on April 16.Soazig de la Moissonniere

Valls, who after serving as French prime minister later became a city councilor in Barcelona (he is a dual Spanish-French citizen), was one of the victims of the great conspiracy developed by Macron from inside the Élysée. He had fierce clashes with his economy minister and went to great lengths to convince then-president François Hollande to remove Macron from the palace. It was useless: Hollande fell under Macron’s spell until “the methodical betrayal” of his protégé, in Hollande’s own words, became evident. It was already too late.

Le traître et le néant (or The traitor and the void), the book on Emmanuel Macron written by journalists Gérard Davet and Fabrice Lhomme, confirms over and over again that Emmanuel Macron’s ability to fascinate is multiplied with older men and greater power. As soon as he left the National School of Administration, Macron successfully sought the protection of the most powerful men of the Republic: Jacques Attali and Alain Minc, two president-makers. It was Minc who procured him a job at the Rothschild Bank, so that he could amass wealth before devoting himself to politics. And it was Attali who brought him close to the Socialist Party and François Hollande.

During Hollande’s presidency, first as an adviser and then as a minister, Emmanuel Macron played his own game. Luck helped him, as always: the strokes of fortune of the current president of France are legendary. When he was about to leave the Élysée for a well-paid teaching position, for example, a stroke of luck led him to the Ministry of Economy. In addition to luck, boldness and an amazing ability to deceive also played a role.

Macron used all the resources of the ministry to weave a dense network of contacts. During his last eight months in office, Macron spent €120,000 on dinners held at the ministerial residence, an imposing glass-enclosed apartment facing the Seine. Some nights there were two dinner shifts with different diners. And a third shift was added at La Rotonde, the Macrons’ favorite brasserie.

Macron was creating En Marche! (the name was chosen by Brigitte because she liked it and the initials coincided with those of her husband) and he repeatedly assured Hollande that it was a political club intended to support his re-election. Instead, together with a group of moderate socialists who felt orphaned by the fall of long-time party heavyweight Dominique Strauss-Kahn (the fall from grace of DSK after being accused of rape was one of Macron’s lucky breaks), Macron was in fact boycotting Hollande and actually preparing his own race for the presidency. The documents were burned in a stove. There was absolute secrecy.

Macron destroyed the options of Hollande and Valls from within. Finally, he announced that he was not a socialist, forced his own dismissal and embarked on the campaign to become president of France.

The politician

Like a corporate banker, Emmanuel Macron launched a takeover bid (after long secret preparations) for the Socialist Party. The initial core of En Marche! was made up of socialists disappointed by François Hollande, the president who wanted to be “normal” and ended up being irrelevant. Once the main party on the left had been dismantled, he captured very prominent figures from The Republicans, the great Gaullist party on the right. “He was the first to guess that the classic parties had collapsed, that the system was in a state of crisis,” says Manuel Valls.

Perhaps Macron’s first presidential adventure would have failed if Alain Juppé had won the primaries of The Republicans. But François Fillon prevailed, a candidate whose campaign frayed when it was discovered that his wife received a salary without working and that he was irregularly financing his high lifestyle. Another stroke of luck: big banking and big industry abandoned Fillon and turned to Macron.

“There is something Napoleonic in Macron’s brilliant career, he knew how to take risks at the right time and people followed him,” summarizes Valls, who in recent times has gotten closer to his old enemy. As soon as he found out that his rival in the second round would be far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, Macron already felt like a president. And he held a big party at La Rotonde, which was premature according to some and inappropriate according to others, because back then it was considered a disgrace for the far right to even reach the second round of voting.

Nobody considers that Macron’s five-year term has been a success. Macron has shown that he knows a lot about France, but very little about the French. La République en Marche, the presidential version of En Marche!, is not a party, but rather a group of clappers dazzled by their leader. The absence of internal criticism, the small role played by members of the government (with the exception of the economy minister, the conservative Bruno Le Maire) and the character of Macron have turned the presidency into a one-man affair.

Macron, the candidate “of the right and of the left,” is a right-wing president. “He has developed a system of government that is too vertical, he has not been able to create a true center party and he has not been able to reach consensus and state pacts,” criticizes Manuel Valls.

The prosperous and urban France brought Macron to the Elysee. Macron made the mistake of governing for that France alone, and not for the other one that is rural, poorly paid and depends on diesel and subsidies. He insisted on underestimating the revolt of the “yellow vests,” with whom his prime minister, the conservative Édouard Philippe, rejected any negotiation. The president put an end to the crisis by taking to the streets in person to hold large public debates that lasted entire days.

Macron, along with his wife, Brigitte, inside Nanterre stadium, on the outskirts of Paris, on April 2.
Macron, along with his wife, Brigitte, inside Nanterre stadium, on the outskirts of Paris, on April 2.Soazig de la Moissonniere

He was unable to enjoy his success. The pandemic emerged and the liberal economic policy was transformed into a policy of massive subsidies. Now, inflation and war have accentuated the exceptionality. The mysterious phrase issued by Jacques Attali, his great mentor, will always float over the politics of Emmanuel Macron: “Macron embodies nothingness.”

The philosopher

Emmanuel Macron relentlessly feeds his aura as a president-philosopher, as a romantic intellectual who cannot end the day without reading some of René Char’s poems or immersing himself in a metaphysical treatise. There is, however, a flaw in the character. Macron was twice rejected at the École Normale Supérieure (Normal Sup), the true Olympus of the humanities in France. He had to settle for studying philosophy at Paris Nanterre University, where admission is much easier. It is true that the double rejection occurred at a stormy time, when the young Emmanuel and Brigitte had just broken ties with their past and taken refuge in Paris.

"Perhaps the legend of Macron as a great intellectual has been exaggerated, and perhaps he has done his best to exaggerate that legend," says one of France's most renowned philosophers, a man who participated in some of the Bercy dinners and prefers not to be cited. "I see him more as a great technocrat, banker and high official, with a sensitivity to culture and humanistic concerns, but with a relatively superficial philosophical knowledge."

Gaspard Gantzer insists that Macron sees himself as a writer. A writer without any written work, in any case. The current president often speaks of the influence exerted on him by Paul Ricoeur, the great figure of French phenomenology, a unanimously respected humanist and socialist philosopher. “It was Ricoeur who pushed me into politics,” he once said.

Macron helped Ricoeur as an editorial assistant on his latest and best-known work, Memory, History, Forgetting. Basically, he looked for documentation and wrote up the bibliographic records. He took advantage of his relationship with Ricoeur to get on the editorial board of Esprit, the best-known French journal on philosophy, and publish a few articles with very little impact.

The current president graduated in philosophy (he is also a finance inspector) with a thesis on Machiavelli, whose work he has not stopped reading. The “Jupiterian” tone of his presidency, in the most majestic sense of the term, and his predilection for results, rather than for theories and principles, are possibly related to his Machiavellian studies.

“They say that Macron exercises power as an enlightened despot, which has its logic, because enlightened despotism is the system that is usually associated with the prince-philosopher,” said Francis Wolff, a professor emeritus of philosophy at Normal Sup and a world authority on Aristotle, in statements to the authors of The traitor and the void.

There is almost unanimous agreement in his close circle about Macron’s talent when it comes to reciting poetry. He has memorized thousands of verses, his delivery is strong and he uses the resources of an actor. If necessary, he can also sit down at the piano: he studied it for 10 years. On the whole, he has a much higher cultural veneer than is usual among heads of state and government. And he loves for people to notice it.

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