When did you become interested in Emmanuel Macron?
At his rally in Quimper, Brittany in January this year.
There was a lot of discussion about the Macron phenomenon and he had already assembled a crowd of thousands at Porte de Versailles in Paris.
There was an impression that he was mostly a phenomenon that interested the urban professional class but seeing him in rural parts of Brittany pressing the flesh of pig and dairy farmers and then seeing this rally, changed my view.
I arrived on this cold, wet mid-week evening and there was a queue three metres wide and 200m long. I was stunned – I was in a small Breton town and so many people were prepared to turn out to listen to him. I realised then there was a collective enthusiasm for him – he’d managed to create momentum and it was exciting to see. I thought ‘he’s got a chance’.
Did he always seem destined for great things?
From growing up in Amiens, to his lycée in Paris and university days between Paris and Strasbourg, from a young age teachers, lecturers and peers saw him as talented and incredibly driven and thought he would do something exceptional.
One of his teachers recalled how he [the teacher] used to give students subjects that they had to prepare and talk to the class about. He remembers Macron doing one and he was so passionate and interested in his topic that at the end of the lesson the school bell went but he carried on and the class sat there, rapt in attention listening.
A different teacher remembered how he used to go home and tell his family about this pupil in the evening, and his daughter ended up fed up of hearing him wax lyrical about one of her peers. It gives an idea of how his teachers saw him – and Brigitte [who ran the drama club in his high school] clearly shared that view…
You say in the book that he always showed charm and confidence but kept parts of himself private. What did you mean?
I spoke to someone who works with him who told me: “The only person that really knows Emmanuel Macron is Brigitte Macron.”
He compartmentalises his life, with distinct spheres of friends and contacts – and then there’s always Brigitte, who’s a sphere unto herself.
He has very few very close friends. I spoke to a couple. And despite revealing a lot in celebrity magazines he does like to keep his life private.
People from his student times spoke of how they would be surprised sometimes to suddenly find out about an aspect of his life he’d never mentioned – for example that he was a talented pianist and had taken lessons in a conservatoire and entered competitions. [In the book a friend from ENA student days also reveals that Mr Macron was a ‘king of karaoke’ known for his renditions of Johnny Hallyday and Jacques Brel songs].
Another friend had suddenly discovered his passion for politics – that he could talk about constituencies and MPs and knew the political map like the back of his hand. He knew he liked politics, but hadn’t realised the depth of his knowledge and interest.
Similarly, later on, he kept the extent of his political ambitions hidden from some of his peers for a long time.
Did you manage to speak to him personally?
Once he became president, it was clear he wanted to keep journalists at a distance. We spoke about the biography and he chose not to stand in my way, but he wasn’t prepared to sit and talk to me in depth.
Some say he only won by default this year: the Socialists were unpopular after Hollande, Fillon was hit by scandal and people wanted to keep out the Front National... What do you think?
His rise has been a combination of his own dynamism and talent coupled with extraordinary good luck.
He identified that the main parties were ideologically torn and discredited, especially the Socialists after five years of Hollande. He took a bet that they would choose a left-wing candidate and the Republicans would shift to the right to appeal to Front National voters – which left a space in the middle. He identified that there was a swathe of people, from supporters of Juppé’s moderate centre-right among Les Républicains to the centre-left, which didn’t feel represented by Fillon or Hamon.
Then Fillon’s ‘Penelope-gate’ scandal opened up the way for him, though I believe he would have won anyway.
He also appealed because he was young, dynamic and handsome in a country that hasn’t had many young leaders and a lot of French people liked the idea of being represented by him. And he had skilfully used the media and political opportunities to gradually raise his profile.
Any political movement needs a charismatic figurehead. The political gap on its own is not enough.
What’s your impression from those who know him as to accusations that he is elitist and out of touch?
It’s probably his biggest political liability. He went to one of the best schools in his city, but it was a small provincial city, and his parents were doctors – so it was privileged but not a hugely elitist start. But in Paris he went to Henri IV, a prestigious lycée on the left bank, and was surrounded by privileged children. That’s his first foothold into an elite Parisian world that he climbs from that point as he goes to Sciences Po and ENA, the Finance Ministry and Rothschild’s bank. At each step he’s surrounded by ‘life’s winners’. That’s his reality – he’s not been a social worker, or had to pull himself up from adversity.
How does that translate into how he sees the world?
I don’t think it’s as simple as to say he’s an out of touch snob, though he can sometimes come across that way and he sometimes finds himself having to apologise for comments – it happened shortly after he became Economy Minister when he had to apologise in parliament about a remark about ‘illiterate’ workers at an abattoir.
That set the tone for a series of clumsy expressions and I don’t think he realises how condescending and elitist he can sound, that’s one of the unattractive sides of his personality.
But I think some things he says that can sound brutal are deliberate because he realises that what he says comes across differently to different people. When he talks about slackers [fainéants], for example, some people are shocked but others agree. Using such language can make him sound real and not someone that constantly talks like a politician.
Some accuse him of only being the ‘president of the rich’
En Marche is resolutely middle class; the classic supporter is a small business owner or educated professional. But he does have a lot of support from the financial sector, and a lot of the party’s early funding came from there. Essentially he desires to make France more business-friendly.
He appears to be someone who doesn’t back down easily?
He is determined and steely – he’s announced things in his manifesto and sees it as legitimate to follow through. He’s in a position of strength because he was elected on a clear mandate for change.
I think we see also from [the modest turn-out at] recent protests that the union movement is not as powerful as it was, linked to falling membership and changes in laws. The public mood is that France can’t just carry on doing the same thing. The year 2017 was a watershed in that there was so much dissatisfaction with the political class.
However there is a large constituency in the country that isn’t convinced and is sceptical about his policies, but is prepared to give the medicine a go.
That may be why there haven’t been major demonstrations – the other side is that if it doesn’t work there is a huge danger to Macron’s presidency.
Do you think he’s given a good impression internationally?
Yes. In his inauguration speech he said he wanted French people to feel better about themselves.
Part of that is changing how France is seen abroad and he has been successful in changing France’s image that during the Hollande presidency France was seen as having declined under a weak president.
His pro-Europe agenda has helped, setting himself up as a visionary for the EU. It especially helped with the parliamentary elections, for example, that he had made a good impression with a meeting with Vladimir Putin at Versailles and he stood up to Donald Trump over climate change.
The French are very attached to the idea of France as a world power.
His big speech on Europe at the Sorbonne was closely followed across Europe because he’s now seen as the man who is setting the agenda for the EU – it’s not Germany at this stage.
Can that be risky? France has plenty of eurosceptics
Like his domestic policies, I think people are prepared to give it a go, but they want results. His pitch has been that Europe can be changed and it can serve French people’s interests. But if he fails to demonstrate that, he would certainly be attacked on it by the far right and left at the next elections.
What are the implications for Brexit?
I don’t think he wants to be antagonistic towards Britain but he can’t understand Brexit on a strategic level. It’s the opposite of his vision for France.
He also sees it as a potential economic gain; he would like more of the financial services and more of the foreign investment that has traditionally come to Britain, seen as a gateway to the EU, to come to France.
There’s also political benefit to him in that if Brexit is seen as unsuccessful then he can discredit the eurosceptics in France – he can say ‘look at the costs of Brexit to the British economy’.
The third area is diplomatic – a chance for France to take a larger place on the international stage. Theresa May is so caught up in divisions of the Conservative Party and Brexit that she has no time to devote to any international agenda beyond that and Macron has moved into some of that space in terms of who presents Europe and its vision abroad.
What else did you hear from those close to him on Brexit?
That you absolutely cannot have your cake and eat it; if you’re outside there has to be some sort of cost at almost every level. But I don’t think he wants to ‘punish’ Britain or heavily damage the UK economy. There’s simply a desire to show the EU is a club and being inside it gives you benefits.
Do you get a sense of his personal feelings towards Britain?
His holiday home is in Le Touquet looking across the Channel and he’s spent a lot of his life geographically close to the British coast. Britain was an important centre of fundraising for him during the election campaign and he went to London a couple of times for fundraisers, but otherwise I’m not aware he has a special affinity for it.
Can we expect dramatic transformation from his presidency?
Talk of ‘transforming France’ is characteristic Macron hyperbole. He seems to delight in raising expectations as high as possible.
His programme isn’t ‘transformational’ but it’s a package that if put together would result in substantial change to the French economy and social model, creating a mix between German and Scandinavian models. That’s not to say that’s insignificant; it would be a huge achievement.
My sense is he has a big opportunity and unless the public mood changes significantly there’s no reason for him not to implement his manifesto.
The French Exception - Emmanuel Macron:
The Extraordinary Rise and Risk
by Adam Plowright is published by Icon Books