French Election The Man Who Would Heal France

In an election whose outcome will shape Europe's future, Emmanuel Macron is ahead by a hair’s breadth. Handelsblatt’s sister publication Die Zeit followed him on the campaign trail to learn more about the banker who became a Socialist.
It will take a lot to persuade France regain its belief in itself – and to buy back into globalization.

What is it about Emmanuel Macron that makes so many people rave about him? “He's really very empathetic,” said one of his ex colleagues. “He's so humble,” according to the Parisian tailor who owns the shop where Mr. Macron buys his suits, which cost €340, or $360. “He asks me stuff and then listens to what I say.”

This man leaves an impression on people, one way or another. And according to the latest polls, if he makes it past the unpredictable first round on April 23, he is expected to win the run-off on May 7. He created the movement En Marche just a year ago. It now boasts 230,000 members and in March alone, these members organized 8,000 events to support their candidate. Impressive, in a place where disappointment with politics has morphed into anger and disgust.

According to historian Marcel Gauchet, author of “Understanding the French Misfortune,” people in France still greatly respect the office of president. But in past decades, those who held that office have failed to live up to voters’ high expectations. Jacques Chirac turned out to be a duplicitous backstabber; Nicolas Sarkozy was undignified and incumbent François Hollande is bumbling and indecisive. Now, though, this sullen nation is daring to hope again, partly thanks to Mr. Macron. How did he do that?

In the best neighborhoods of Paris, everybody totally loves him! Xavier Niel, French media and telecoms tycoon

It starts with his signature gaze. When he talks to someone, even amid the campaigning tumult, cameras dangerously close to his head, Mr. Macron focuses on the other person, lowers his voice as though no one else is around. His listener feels as though he has ears only for them.

Then there's his entourage. Mr. Macron likes to surround himself with successful people, or those in the making, like that 20-year old man who gave an impassioned speech about the future of Europe at a campaign event for French expats in Berlin. As Cédric Villani, a mathematician who won the Fields Medal in 2010 put it, “Macron attracts talent.”

Money, too, helps. Mr. Macron’ supporters include supermarket magnate Henry Hermand, who he died recently; telecom billionaire Xavier Niel, and LVMH chief executive Bernard Arnault, the country's second-richest person, with a net worth placed at €41.5 billion. Mr. Niel said on TV, “What I like about Emmanuel is his determination. In the best neighborhoods of Paris, everybody totally loves him!”

Mr. Macron’s popularity among the French elite seems no small feat, given he used to be part of the beleaguered left-wing cabinet about to take a beating of historic proportions in the polls. But before that he was an investment banker at Rothschild, with enviable contacts. His successes from that period include a deal between Nestlé and Pfizer, and making his first million in his early 30s.

During that time, the other candidates were waging dirty power struggles in their parties, wrecking their reputations and dispositions. Mr. Macron, in contrast, is fresh faced and surrounded by influential friends.

Macron posing with meat processing employees.

But big name endorsements are a double-edged sword. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen, Mr. Macron’s toughest opponent in the election who ties with him in most polls after leading the race for months, has repeatedly disparaged him as a pet of big finance, corporations and the media. For her, all those are one and she somehow has a point. Mr. Niel is the principal shareholder of Le Monde, France’s best daily newspaper, while Mr. Arnault owns a radio station, a big business newspaper and a tabloid, among other companies.

Though Mr. Macron and Ms. Le Pen are polar opposites in most regards, they share one trait. He wants France to be a different country under his presidency, and believes French society is paralyzed by bad politics. Unemployment in France is so high, he says, because mind-numbing regulation has robbed people and companies of their drive.

During his two-year tenure as President Hollande’s economics minister, which he ended last August to launch his presidential bid, he called to cut government intervention. Back then, it was all about detail, like deregulating long-distance buses. But his message and his philosophy came through loud and clear, and it sounded pretty radical: Work is fun and people should make something of themselves.

Young French people should aspire to become billionaires. Emmanuel Macron

He pushes his message but some statements backfired. Once, in cabinet, he said, "Young French people should aspire to become billionaires.” His critics derided him as an insufferable, money-worshipping know-it-all. Sources close to him say he now tries to avoid saying such things, which go down badly with voters who are disadvantaged and who might vote instead for Ms. Le Pen.

So since he kicked off his campaign in November, Mr. Macron has been reaching out people who might feel left behind, traveling throughout the country. In France, this is called a “rendezvous with the nation,” and in the metaphor, it’s understood that while allowing itself to be courted, the nation is also demanding and fickle -- and only decides at the last minute.

Mr. Macron must win over not only hundreds of thousands of urban, educated supporters, but 18 million voters, half the French electorate, by May 7. His travels suggest he has sought to meet each one: he has reached out to farmers, small-town mayors, and young people in working-class suburbs. Not to forget France’s overseas regions; he flew to those lovely islands plagued by endemic unemployment.

There as in the old people's home in Burgundy, he listened. In Dijon, a frail old lady told him what she learned in her computer course and he praised her for educating herself so she can bank online when her bank closes its last local branch. It made her beam.

If only he could explain to every single person in France how wonderful change is, how no one needs fear globalization, if he could just look each individual in the eye and touch their arm gently like the old lady, perhaps then he could heal the whole country.


This article initially appeared in Die Zeit, a sister publication of Handelsblatt. To contact the author: [email protected].