Profile: Emmanuel Macron, grandstander over fishing. A campaigner of genius – but not a man to be taken literally.

3 Nov

The theatre of politics has few more brilliant performers than Emmanuel Macron. In 2017, he became, at the age of 39, the youngest ruler of France since Napoleon.

He now intends to seize, with characteristic boldness, the leadership of the European Union. As Sabine Syfuss-Arnaud, world editor at Challenges, the leading business weekly in France, told ConHome yesterday:

“For Emmanuel Macron the timing is perfect to project himself as the leading personality of the European scene. A lot of strong voices are gone: Boris Johnson, swept away by Brexit; Sebastian Kurz, by a corruption case; Mark Rutte, by an internal political crisis; Viktor Orban, by his authoritarian attitudes.

“Moreover, Angela Merkel, for years considered the most important European leader, is leaving power, and her likely successor, Olaf Scholz, is known neither for his charisma, nor for his ability to wax lyrical, which the French President loves doing and is very talented at.

“The year 2022 is full of challenges and opportunities for Macron. France will hold the rotating presidency of the EU for the first six months, which will be the perfect stage for ‘Macron the European’, as the French press has been nicknaming him since 2017.

“In April he will face his most important test, the presidential elections. He will be counting on Europe, European achievements and foreign policy successes to give him a decisive advantage over his opponents.”

The fight Macron picked with Britain over fishing rights has nothing whatever to do with the merits of the case. It is simply an opportunity for Macron to grandstand in defence of French fishermen.

Here was an irresistible chance for Macron the European to prove he is also Macron the Frenchman, standing shoulder to shoulder with his brave compatriots in their small boats as they defy the might of the Royal Navy.

But this week Macron was determined also to grandstand at the COP26 summit in Glasgow, so he toned down the fishing row. His sabre had been rattled loudly enough to reap a rich harvest of headlines, and he does not wish, by escalating hostilities, to impoverish the far larger number of people in Calais and other parts of northern France whose livelihoods would be damaged by a trade war. Nor is he likely to end the close co-operation on defence between France and Britain.

Recent polling indicates that Macron has good chances of victory in next April’s presidential elections. The French Left is at present hopelessly divided between a number of different candidates, and so is the Right.

And Macron himself is a campaigner of genius. This observation is not meant to imply that he deserves to win, but simply that he is extraordinarily good at attracting attention to himself, and thus denying it to his opponents, who face an unenviable choice between being sane but invisible, or else insane but unelectable.

Anyone who saw Macron in action at the Rome summit, or in Glasgow, will have been reminded of his ability to attract attention to himself. The French President is always in play, always engaged in daring feats of oneupmanship and brinkmanship, always ready to swear eternal friendship or eternal enmity.

If Peter Sellers were still around, he could play Macron to perfection, as a politician who is at one and the same time cunning, witty, naive and triumphant.

“But what does Macron believe?” the reader may ask. “What is his ideology?”

The authors of a new book about himLe Traître et le Néant (The Traitor and Nothingness, a title which echoes Sartre’s celebrated work, L’Être et le Néant, Being and Nothingness) say it remains impossible to know what he believes: “Macronism is deliberately indefinable.”

Even to try to define it is to make a mistake. Here is a man who is very quick and very clever, surrounded by people who like him went to France’s top universities. He is impelled by the desire to win and to retain power, but is vulnerable to the charge that he does not know his own country.

And always he has to play a double game: to be the great European, but also the great defender of France, down to its most humble fishermen. In him are found all the vanities and insecurities of his nation, its grandeur and decadence, its hope of glory and fear of being left behind by Germany and by the English-speaking world, unable even to persuade immigrants of the superiority of French civilisation.

Emmanuel Macron was born on 21st December 1977 in Amiens, his mother a physician, his father a professor of neurology. He was sent to the local Jesuit Lycée, where at the age of 15 he fell in love with a teacher, Brigitte Auzière, who was 24 years older than him and was married with three children.

His parents, hoping to break the attachment, sent him to finish his education in Paris. Here he studied philosophy – his thesis was on Machiavelli and Hegel – followed by the training at Sciences Po and the Ecole nationale d’administration required to become, as an Inspector of Finances, a high-flying civil servant.

In 2007 he married Brigitte Auzière and the following year he bought himself out of the civil service, and instead joined the French branch of Rothschild, where he became a successful investment banker.

In 2012, he changed tack again, and joined President François Hollande as a senior adviser at the Elysée. Two years later, he was made Minister of Economy, but in 2015 he let it be known he was no longer a member of Hollande’s Socialist Party, and should be regarded as an independent.

Macron pursued, certainly, an increasingly independent political course, and in April 2016 launched his own political movement, La République En Marche!, which was said to be neither of the Left nor of the Right.

In August 2016 he resigned from the Government, and in October he criticised Hollande for wanting to be a “normal” President, and asserted that a more “Jupiterian” presidency was required.

He was by now attracting crowds and media attention of which his numerous rivals could only dream. His eloquence and charisma were undeniable, so were his brains and love of French literature, and he promised he would reform the French economy, but his runaway success was still a bit of a puzzle.

As Patrick Marnham observed in The Spectator in February 2017,

“If Macron’s unique selling point is unclear, his unique talking point is that he married his former school teacher, a lady 24 years older than him. This startling fact, when first encountered, tends to bring political discussion to a halt, while all pause for a few moments of profound reflection.”

In the course of writing this profile I was surprised to be told by an Englishwoman:

“From a woman’s point of view I wouldn’t say no to dinner with Mr Macron.”

Perhaps he is among other qualities more attractive than his rivals. He had certainly positioned himself very astutely, avoiding the extreme positions taken up by some of his competitors as they strove to profile themselves, and in May 2017 he won a decisive victory over Marine Le Pen in the second round of the presidential election.

On the night of 18th January 2018 I happened to be passing the Victoria and Albert Museum and saw, in the middle of a crowd of spectators, the small figure of Macron making for a black official car.

There was something dramatic but also comic in his demeanour, and I let out a loud laugh, whereupon he turned his head and looked for a moment directly at me, alert and involved and somehow a star.

When I related this encounter the next day to an elderly shire Tory, she said:

“I think he’s quite devious. One’s got to be jolly alert with these foreigners.”

Her sentiments are ably reflected in the British press as it follows the twists and turns of the fish dispute. But while we should certainly keep a close eye on this heroic defender of France’s fishermen, we should not make the error of taking him literally.