PARIS — Since his election, at the end of an epic campaign that redrew the battle lines of French politics, the eight president of the Fifth Republic is undeniably the man of the moment. Emmanuel Macron intrigues, fascinates, irritates and attracts all manner of superlatives — at the very least he has left no one indifferent. “Macron mania” isn’t just sweeping France off its feet, but — to listen to the likes of Interior Minister Gérard Collomb — the entire world.
The cherubic president’s transformation is, admittedly, astonishing. Wasn’t he too soft, too inexperienced? Somehow, and in record time, he’s imposed his own style, one that draws on both history and modernity. Gone is his juvenile candor, his televangelist’s exaltation as he preached to his flock on the campaign trail. Forgotten, even, are the foundations of the En Marche movement that, at its core, was supposed to give French voters back their voice.
In office, the youngest president of the Fifth Republic has traded those characteristics for an iron hand. He intends to be a Jupiterean leader, to rule from the top down, efficiently — with a sense of authority.
The French thought they had elected a cool, young president, a man of his time. They saw him as part of the Facebook generation, embracing horizontal power, the “uberization” of society and a liberal economy. They thought they had voted a “little prince” of the digital age into the Élysée Palace. Instead, the 39-year-old president’s modernity is an illusion.
His first steps on the international stage — at the G7 and NATO summits last month — were unanimously hailed as a perfect performance for the rookie president.
Despite his curated informality, his way of catapulting himself up the steps of the Élysée four at a time — a photograph of which he was quick to share on social media — Macron carries on his shoulders centuries-worth of French statesmen. In his first weeks as president, he has referred to a dizzying array of French historical figures, not only from the Republic but from the monarchy and the empire too. He has portrayed himself as a kaleidoscopic head of state: a touch of Charles De Gaulle, for his position above party politics and the desire to rebuild France; an ounce of François Mitterand, for his references to history and literature, and his air of being a master of his own time; a smidgen of Napoleon Bonaparte and a zest of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing to bring the whole thing up to date.
This fairly traditional style shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. In an interview Macron gave as economy minister, he held forth on the “emotional emptiness” in the collective imagination caused by the absence of a king. And during his campaign, Macron surprised supporters who thought of him as a leftist politician with liberal leanings when he congratulated controversial far-right French entrepreneur Philippe de Villiers on the opening of his second theme park, and when he delivered an emotional speech at an event commemorating Joan of Arc.
What the French have done is brought to power a kind of Dorian Gray; there may not be a portrait in a closet, but the only youthful thing about him is his appearance. Macron is rooted in history far more deeply than his two predecessors. This was clear the night of his victory — that long, slow presidential walk to the podium in the courtyard at the Louvre, the setting of so many key moments of French history, to the notes of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Macron, inspired by images of former President Mitterand at the Panthéon, paid homage, red rose in hand, to his Socialist forbearers and chose to mark his ascent to the presidency with solemnity. The contrast to his lavish, highly criticized celebratory dinner party after the first round of the election was stark — and convinced many he was now up to the task.
His first steps on the international stage — at the G7 and NATO summits last month — were unanimously hailed as a perfect performance for the rookie president. These were the moments that cemented the Macron style: a blend of American-style modernity, itself a mix of Obama, Kennedy and even a bit of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; and personal, historical references, characterized above all by a newfound determination, a new firmness in his ability to spell out the issues his country faces.
The new president’s American style is obvious in his apparently informal, but in fact tightly controlled, style of communication. The historical notes were on display not only on election night but also as he paraded down the Galerie des Batailles in Versailles alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin. That image hammered home that Macron too comes from a strong legacy; he is a child-king who has inherited the history of France and could yet become a leader of the European sphere.
Macron has already shown his nerve, his predilection to call things as they are, his taste for confrontation. His virile tug-of-war handshake with U.S. President Donald Trump — analyzed and deconstructed over and over, portrayed as a kind of affirmation — was, in his own words, a victory and “a moment of truth.” As was his meeting with Putin at Versailles, where he both rekindled ties with Russia and sent a signal that he has clear reservations about its politics. His prompt reaction, in English, to the U.S. president’s decision to pull out of the climate agreement and his call to “Make our planet great again” — with echoes of Kennedy’s landmark “Ich bin ein Berliner” 1963 speech — had a stunning global impact.
Macron has always had one specific obsession: to be agile, never stuck. The only question now is, what will happen when the world falls out of love with him?
Enough to make the wonder child’s head spin? Probably not. Ever since he was a child, Macron has constructed his identity under the admirative gaze of others, including those who propelled his rise to power: his grandmother, his teachers, his wife — not to mention his many political fathers, from philosopher Paul Ricoeur to former Socialist Prime Minister Michel Rocard, billionaire businessman Henry Hermand, pro-European functionary Jean-Pierre Jouyet, social theorist Jacques Attali and even former French President François Hollande. Macron has always had one specific obsession: to be agile, never stuck. The only question now is, what will happen when the world falls out of love with him?
Anne Fulda is a political journalist for French daily Le Figaro and the author of “Emmanuel Macron, un jeune homme si parfait” (Editions Plon, 2017). This article was translated from French by Esther King.