He is now through to the second round of the French presidential elections.
Does he have what it takes to lead the country?
On a cool April night in 2016, a couple of hundred people gathered in a provincial town north of Paris.
The guests were mostly the family and friends of the speaker, France’s Economy Minister, Emmanuel Macron. It was a low-key event – the simple room unadorned, the minister’s wife taking notes in the front row.
“It felt like being at a wedding," according to one account - “a small room, emotion, a speech”. In fact, it was a birth.
After holding forth for an hour on the future of French industry and employment, Macron delivered the message he’d come to convey - the launch of a new political movement, En Marche! (On The Move!)
It was a bold move for a man working at the heart of France’s Socialist government. Brought in to politics by Francois Hollande, Macron was seen as the president’s political protégé, perhaps destined for greatness in the future. Few had any inkling he would make a bid for it so soon.
And so, that night in Amiens, there were no flags to herald the new movement, no TV cameras, no campaign leaflets. Yet, in less than a year, its young leader has overtaken the country’s established politicians to become the front-runner in France’s presidential race - the most rapid political coming-of-age modern France has ever seen.
“In months, he went from child to teenager, and teenager to adult,” says Alain Minc, a mentor and close associate who advised Macron on his political career.
“I have known him intimately for 15 years, but I'm quite surprised how quickly he learns politics,” Minc says. “He's a cat - you throw him through the window and he manages to fall on his feet.”
But politics wasn’t always Emmanuel’s Macron’s ambition. At school in Amiens, he wanted to be a novelist.
He had a reputation as a brilliant, precocious boy, remembers Antoine Marguet, his class-mate from the private Jesuit school, La Providence. Macron read classic French literature, he said, and wrote poems, and a novel featuring Spanish conquistadors.
“Emmanuel Macron has always been different,” recalls Marguet. “At an age when most people only watch TV, he just read. He was the teacher’s equal in some ways. [He had] an Olympic intelligence – each time further, higher, faster.
Someone who certainly saw him that way was Brigitte Trogneux, his drama teacher. “He wasn’t like the others,” she told a French documentary last year, “he wasn’t a teenager. He had a relationship of equals with other adults.”
One day, she remembers, he came to her with plans to write a play together for her final year drama class. “I didn’t think it would go very far,” she said. “I thought he would get bored. We wrote, and little by little I was totally overcome by the intelligence of this boy.”
At 16, Macron left Amiens to finish his schooling in Paris, vowing to marry his former teacher. “We’d call each other all the time and spend hours on the phone,” she remembered. “Bit by bit, he defeated all my resistance, in an amazing way, with patience.”
Brigitte Trogneux was 24 years older than Macron, and married with three children. But she left her husband, and began a relationship with her former pupil. The couple married in 2007.
It’s an unusual love story that reveals a lot about Macron’s determination and self-belief, says Anne Fulda, author of a new book on his rise.
Macron told her that he had “fought to live his life. It wasn’t easy, wasn’t the most obvious and automatic of lives; it didn’t match the established way of doing things.”
For years, the couple avoided publicity, Fulda says, but there has been a subtle shift since Emmanuel Macron launched his presidential bid:
The Run For President
When En Marche was launched in April 2016, it was mocked by some in the establishment as a naive, flabby idea that was doomed to fail. One fellow minister marked the launch by posting a wry link on social media to a song titled I Walk Alone.
But Emmanuel Macron wasn’t alone for long. En Marche now has more than 200,000 signed-up members, though joining the movement costs nothing and doesn’t require supporters to give up their membership of other political parties.
And as his movement grew, so did speculation that he would announce his bid for the presidency.
The roots of Macron’s decision to run for president stretch back decades, and are covered by thick foliage of his own making - story-telling, image and myth. But Alain Minc is in no doubt that his protégé has “always” seen himself heading for the top job.
“I did my best to convince him to run in 2022,” Minc says, “and he told me: ‘You are wrong, there is an opportunity [now].’”
In fact, says political writer Marc Endeweld, author of The Ambiguous Mr Macron, “everything was all ready to go from the autumn of 2015”.
It was only because of the November 2015 attacks, and then the Brussels attacks in March 2016, that Macron waited to launch his movement until April, he says.
Mathieu Laine was one of a small coterie of people around Emmanuel Macron urging him to run.
“We made something extraordinary,” he says. “At the beginning, we were maybe four people around him. Emmanuel is very focused and he loves collective intelligence. It was step-by-step - he didn’t just one day arrive at this idea.”
When I get through to Laine at the offices of his market research company in London, he’s on the other line to Macron’s team.
“I don’t want to say I call Emmanuel more than my fantastic wife,” he jokes when we finally speak, “but he’s number two! We exchange around 15 texts a day.”
He says the timing of Macron’s bid for the presidency was heavily influenced by his experience in President Francois Hollande’s government.
As economy minister, Macron was embroiled in a struggle to push through a series of liberal economic reforms, nicknamed the Loi Macron (Macron Law). But divisions in the governing Socialist party and resistance in the National Assembly left him disillusioned.
“His legs were broken by the system,” says Mathieu Laine.
In December 2015, Laine wrote an opinion piece for the weekly news magazine, Le Point, calling on Macron to run in the 2017 presidential race. It was the first public shot in the campaign.
The scales tipped, he says, the following summer. The timing was right. And in November 2016, Macron announced his candidacy for president of France.
How En Marche!
The vibe at Camp Macron is more Silicon Valley than central Paris. Primary colours dominate, T-shirts form the backbone of the uniform, bunk-beds stand ready to catch exhausted volunteers, most of whom are under 30.
On the wall behind Raphael Coulhon, part of the finance team, is a hand-drawn cartoon of Macron as Superman. “I put that up,” he laughs.
Macron has repeatedly said he wants to create a new kind of politics. And with no established party structure to rely on, the loyalty of willing supporters is key. “This movement is only what we make it,” runs the call to arms of En Marche. “From the first day, it depends on the involvement of each one of us.”
Strong personal appeal is also useful when you’re trying to bridge deep ideological divides, like that between France’s left- and right-wing parties. But all political movements need ideas to unite behind.
Macron’s personal charisma might have helped to launch his movement, but his challenge was to come up with a political programme that could appeal to centrists from both left and right.
Before drawing up any policies – or even any concrete principles – Macron’s campaign carried out a nationwide door-to-door campaign, interviewing voters individually on their attitudes and complaints.
“In general when you want to write a [political] programme, you call the experts,” explains Guillaume Liegey, founder of an electoral consulting firm that works with En Marche. “Experts are very smart, but it's good to have input from the field and that's what En Marche provided.”
The Grande Marche (Great Walkabout), as it was called, resulted in 25,000 separate and unusually detailed interviews with voters, says Liegey.
The origin of this idea “was absolutely the Obama campaign” in 2008, where Liegey earned his own electoral spurs. The same technology that Liegey and his friends used to gather data on what American voters were thinking back then was adopted by En Marche to analyse their conversations with voters in France.
En Marche volunteers asked each voter they met two questions - what works in France, and what doesn’t work?
And there were interesting contradictions. “Many people said schools worked,” Liegey remembers, “but to the question of what doesn’t work, they said the national education system. They see schools and the system as different. So it doesn’t give you a straightforward solution.”
From his first public speech, announcing his intention to run, Macron has made much of his dislike of the system, while presenting himself as “positive” about France itself.
When Macron finally did go public with his political programme, it was ridiculed for being too vague, too general – a charge that has followed him right through to the last days of the campaign. Macron, his critics say, is for and against everything.
In a presidential debate, in the run-up to polling day, his far-right rival Marine Le Pen shook her head and laughed after he finished his contribution, saying: “You know what, Mr Macron, you’re incredibly talented - you’ve managed to speak for seven minutes and I can’t summarise what you think. You’ve said nothing, it’s an absolute void.”
But Liegey says Macron is pragmatic. “I don't think France needs more ideas,” he says. “I think it's a question of methods. If you want to change the country you have to be methodical, you can't just say ‘I'm going to do it’. You need a plan.”
You also need a bit of luck, and Macron has been lucky in several ways.
A large part of his rise can be traced to the struggles of France’s two established parties - the governing Socialists, and the centre-right Republicans. Both are battling declining appeal amid an electorate weary of the old political to-and-fro, with what many see as little real change.
Division and lethargy have dogged the Socialist Party for years, while gloom has hung over the centre-right Republicans party since their candidate, Francois Fillon, became embroiled in a damaging financial scandal. Both parties are now battling against the odds to reach the second round of the election.
That disillusionment with established parties is something Macron – and his far-right rival Marine Le Pen – have played on heavily. And it’s worked.
Macron has been cannibalising the Socialist Party’s support, and has won over some high-profile figures, including the former prime-minister Manuel Valls, once seen as a bitter enemy.
Macron took many people by surprise, says political writer Marc Endeweld, because France has a “completely gerontocratic political system, and for these old plutocrats, the idea that a young, ambitious man of 39 would have presidential ambitions seemed so crazy, it was unbelievable.”
Where once the young candidate was loudly ridiculed as a “champagne bubble” liable to pop, with no established party behind him and no previous electoral experience, there’s now a stunned silence.
But Macron has also been lucky, he says, that popular centrist figures like the Republican Alain Juppe and the Socialist Manuel Valls lost their party primaries to more hard-line rivals, leaving a broad swathe of space in the centre of French politics empty for the taking.
“I told him he must have a contract with God, to have so much luck over the past few months,” Minc says.
“Two weeks ago, we had dinner, and I asked him whether it was an indefinite contract. He said, ‘yes’. That’s important. He took a risk, and it isn’t finished.”
Macron’s long-awaited manifesto was launched one spring morning, in a glitzy meeting hall off the Champs-Elysees. Inside, with sunlight dancing through the French windows, smartly-dressed waiters served orange juice and coffee to queues of waiting journalists.
The launch was days after the Hollywood film La La Land won several Oscars, sparking a snide new nickname for Emmanuel Macron - “Bla-Bla-Land”. All talk, no policies.
But instead, his manifesto seemed to offer policies for everyone - help for farmers, for industry, for employers, for workers, for entrepreneurs. Tax cuts alongside support for those on low incomes. Spending cuts nestling next to €50bn of public investment.
He bounded onto the stage and spoke at length about his proposals. “People will ask if it’s a programme of the left or the right,” he said. “I want it to be a programme that brings France into the 21st Century.”
Macron on the EU:
A smiling Macron had promised to answer every single question from the hundreds of journalists packed into the hall. Three hours in, a French journalist brought up Macron’s past as an investment banker, questioning whether he was capable of attracting working-class votes.
It prompted a vehement tirade from the En Marche leader against the idea that he was part of a privileged elite. “I was born in a provincial town, in a family that had nothing to do with the world of journalists, politicians or bankers,” he expostulated, clearly annoyed.
Macron can be sensitive about his background. The story he tells about himself is of a boy from outside the establishment, who rose to prominence through merit and hard work. “My grandparents were a teacher, railway worker, social worker, and bridges and roadways engineer, all came from modest backgrounds.”
Alternative views on his roots and his rise can sometimes appear unwelcome.
“The fact that you worked for a bank and earned money is not such a bad thing in the UK,” explains his friend Mathieu Laine. “In France, it’s different. He always has to explain that it’s not bad to have worked in the private sector. It’s always the same question. But I agree with you that he doesn’t control his emotions. He’s very polite, but he can have some intensity.”
- €50bn (£43bn) public investment plan for job-training, shift to renewable energy, infrastructure and modernisation
- Reimbursement of full cost of glasses, dentures and hearing aids
- Big cut in corporation tax and leeway for companies to renegotiate 35-hour week
- Cut in jobless rate to 7% (now 9.7%)
- Ban on mobile use in schools for under-15s and a €500 culture
pass for 18-year-olds
Liberal economic reform, of the kind Macron advocates, is a divisive issue in France.
Left-wing stalwarts, including many of the unions, fiercely oppose making it easier for companies to hire and fire staff, set salaries, or extend working hours.
Macron has not done well with blue-collar workers, while his far-right rival Marine Le Pen is estimated to have cornered almost half that section of the vote.
Reacting to her former colleague’s proposals, a senior member of the Socialist Party, Martine Aubry, exploded: “Up until now, Emmanuel Macron thought that being launched as a new product with a sparkling smile would be enough to be elected president. And I always say… when things are vague, there’s a wolf.
His economic programme, said Aubry, “takes up the liberal agenda of the Anglo-Saxons in the 1980s. It’s about reducing public services, reducing deficits, and for workers to work more and be paid less.”
There are plenty of centre-left Socialists who agree with the need for economic reform, and Macron has described himself as “a man of the left”, but mentor Alain Minc says there is something different about what he’s offering.
“He's a leftist liberal, and that is new in French politics,” he says. “There has been a social democrat wing in the Socialist Party but he believes much more in the strengths of the market.”
“He's a Blairist,” he concludes. “He's Tony Blair's son.”
Some would argue that he has gone further than the former British prime minister, in the later stages of his campaign, in an attempt to win over right-wing voters. But cross-party appeal has never been easy.
In order to try and pass his economic reforms, during his time as minister, Emmanuel Macron turned to right-wing MPs for help.
“It was a nightmare for him,” says his friend Mathieu Laine. “A lot of these [right wing] MPs said, ‘Oh, the Loi Macron is a very good bill, but as it comes from the left, we won’t vote for it’. It was the beginning of the idea, among our very small group, that we should break this way of doing politics.”
For Macron, politics in France is no longer a battle between right and left ideology, but one between protectionism and globalisation. His staunchest adversary is not the Socialist Party he deserted, nor the Republican Party of Francois Fillon, but the closed-border, anti-liberal policies of Marine Le Pen.
Macron talks about Marine Le Pen:
And nothing divides him and Le Pen more strongly than the issue of Europe. Macron is alone among the candidates in being enthusiastically pro-EU.
“He's European in the way his generation is,” says Minc. “It’s not so much about the weight of the war or [the EU] as an instrument of peace, it's natural.
Questions of immigration, culture and national identity have risen to the fore in this campaign, and in his “contract with the nation”, published at the manifesto launch in Paris, Macron lists education as his top priority – “the source of our national cohesion”.
Teachers have played a crucial role in Macron’s life and career. Well before he married his own drama teacher, there was another woman teacher he adored - his maternal grandmother, Manette.
“She helped me believe in my political destiny,” Macron told biographer, Anne Fulda.
His grandmother was “demanding and determined”, Fulda wrote in her account of Macron’s life. “She wasn’t indulgent. She opened the door to reading and culture for him.”
Macron would call his grandmother every night, Fulda says, whether he was working at Rothschild, or for the government. His father, by contrast, said he saw Macron just once a year during his time in the government.
Image v Reality
As well as influencing his thinking, Emmanuel Macron’s grandmother gave him something else - solid working-class credentials.
Manette’s own mother had been illiterate, and the story of her great-grandson making it to the Elysee Palace would be a romantic tale – far more romantic than the tale of a neurologist’s son who ran for president after a stint in an investment bank.
Macron has often spoken about the close bond he had with his grandmother, talking about her in his book and in interviews, to the extent that his parents have somewhat faded from the picture.
“If you read some articles, Emmanuel doesn’t have a family!” his mother Francoise Nogues Macron told the biographer Anne Fulda. “That’s something I don’t take well at all.”
“It was a provincial, bourgeois family life, with parents who worked a lot but gave their children a reassuring and protective cocoon.”
Macron’s political image is built around the idea that he is outside the system, not part of France’s established political class - his provincial roots and illiterate great-grandmother presented in contrast to a privileged Parisian elite.
But Macron’s parents were both doctors, his school in Amiens was private, and at 16 he headed to Paris to attend one of France’s most prestigious schools, Lycee Henri IV, before graduating from the central clearing-house for French leaders, the Ecole Nationale d’Adminstration.
Once out of college, he regularly met with France’s king-makers and political elites, and became wealthy while working as an investment banker at Rothschild. So can he truly be described as the anti-establishment candidate?
“It would be a little outrageous to say it,” admits Alain Minc. “He's anti-political system, but he's the best product of the French system. The system gives a chance to newcomers - like Georges Pompidou, Raymond Barre, Robert Badinter, Jacques Delors - but he took it more quickly and with a sense of gamble the others did not have.”
The sense of Macron as a gambler comes up regularly among those who know him, along with frequent descriptions of him as clever and charming. “He’s extremely smart,” says Mathieu Laine, “At the same time he’s someone very human, with a lot of empathy. Very positive and generous in relationships.”
At rallies, Macron seems to give himself completely to the moment - hoarse with emotion, almost Messianic, he shouts into the auditorium, head thrown back, arms wide, telling his political fans that he loves them, that he needs them beside him. It’s rock-star politics.
But in an interview with Anne Fulda, his wife Brigitte hinted at another side to Macron.
Then there’s the story of how Macron handled his departure from President Hollande’s government, in order to launch a presidential bid of his own.
According to the daily newspaper, Le Monde, two days before launching En Marche, Macron took the president aside at the Elysee Palace and told him “as if it were nothing” – “Oh by the way, I wanted to tell you: I’m doing a thing in Amiens on 6 April. I’m launching a youth movement, a sort of think tank.”
“He reached that day the peak of his duplicity,” a former adviser told the paper. It’s what I call the ambiguity of Emmanuel Macron. There’s political ambiguity, but ambiguity also in his relations with other people, including powerful people.”
“He plays a game of smoke and mirrors with the president,” Endeweld says. “Like a snake, he lets him go to sleep, and Francois Hollande didn’t want to face up to reality.
“I think he’s someone who’s very hard and determined behind the amiable and seductive facade,” Fulda concludes. Like a lot of intelligent people, he gets bored easily. He likes the seduction and the chase, but once he has it, he wants to move on to something else.”
Macron believes strongly in his own powers of persuasion. He talks to everyone, smiling for selfies, ready to debate with both friends and adversaries, and during his time as economy minister, famously walked out of a meeting with students in Herault to engage with protesters shouting outside.
They were demonstrating against the economic reforms Macron was trying to pass. Macron, as one French paper put it, “lost first his smile, and then his temper”.
“I can’t afford a suit like yours,” one of the protesters said to him.
“You don’t scare me with your T-shirt,” Macron shot back. “The best way to afford a suit is to work.”
There have been several such cracks in Macron’s smooth exterior during his presidential campaign. Two months before the first round of the election, he caused uproar by saying that French actions in the Algerian War of Independence constituted a “crime against humanity”.
The same month, he sparked protest among left-wing voters by saying that those who had demonstrated against gay marriage had been “humiliated”.
Moments like this appear to some as unscripted glimpses of the “real” Macron - the gaffes of a young, inexperienced politician. But according to Nicolas Prisette, the author of a book on Macron, they are instead carefully calculated to appeal to various parts of his support. “The extreme left is delighted about these adventures, which have the added virtue of consolidating the sympathies of some right-wing voters,” he writes.
It’s not always easy to separate the storytelling from the substance when it comes to Emmanuel Macron. An investment banker who launches a grassroots movement; a product of the establishment who runs as an anti-system candidate; a private man who seems open to everyone, but needs no one.
“He’s complex,” his school friend Marguet says. “I don’t think there is a ‘real’ Emmanuel Macron.”
What Kind Of President?
From the very first days of En Marche, Emmanuel Macron has created the sense that everyone has a stake in his rise, and that the levers of power will be collectively and democratically pulled.
The creed of his new movement has been “we” - politicians and people together, a French echo of Obama’s successful 2008 motto, “yes we can”.
He’s promised that half of all the En Marche candidates running in June’s National Assembly elections will be drawn from outside the political system, and that half of those running must be women.
But not everyone agrees that a Macron presidency would bring a fresh wind blowing through the Elysee Palace. Political biographer Marc Endeweld says that, despite the mood of what might be described as horizontal democracy, Emmanuel Macron has always been the one with real power: “You have to realise that in the end, En Marche is something very vertical; there isn’t really a campaign manager, Emmanuel Macron has compartmentalised his relations a lot. And he has a conception of power that is extremely personal.”
In an interview with a weekly news magazine in July 2015, Macron talked about an “incompleteness” at the heart of French politics.
“That absence is the figure of the king,” he said, “which I don’t think the French people fundamentally wanted to die. The Terror [during the French Revolution] dug an emotional, imaginary and collective void - the king isn’t there anymore! We’ve tried to fill that void, to put other people in it… And all we want from the president is for him to occupy that function.”
Macron has become much more brutal, much more cynical, much more professional, suggests Alain Minc.
Anne Fulda believes this single-mindedness could help him be a good president. “It’s not difficult for him to burn his bridges with people who helped him. He’s used the system very well to his effect, but he wouldn’t have a problem tearing it up.”
Macron’s proposed reforms sparked big demonstrations during his time as economy minister. And he has said he’s determined to stand firm against further disruptions should he win power.
In an election as polarised and uncertain as this one, implementing his proposals may not be easy.
And what critics and supporters alike agree on is that Macron is not adept at dealing with failure. He seems to have had few disappointments in life, barring his failure to pass the entry exam for the Ecole Normale Superieure (one of France's top schools).
The business of government is likely to be tough. Macron believes he has found a new political model for France - one that attempts to unite people across an ideological divide that has existed since the Revolution.
But bridging this fault-line and sustaining it under pressure has been difficult at times during his campaign. Bridging it when in power – most likely without a majority in the National Assembly – could be even tougher. But for Emmanuel Macron, this new way of gathering support is the answer to what he believes is the end of the “ancien regime” in French politics.
Marine Le Pen has built her growing appeal on uniting left and right voters behind the promise of a protectionist, populist agenda. He plans to do the same behind an agenda based on globalisation, open borders and free-trade.
Should he be crowned as France’s democratic leader, it will mark not just the start of a new presidency, but a new chapter in French politics - the king is dead, long live the king.