Until a few weeks ago, the future course of western politics seemed depressingly certain. From Brexit to the American election, centrist elites appeared fatally wounded by populist opportunists, pandering to the masses supposedly failed by globalism.
Would, as in Britain and the United States, other bastions of liberalism topple over the next year or so? Faced by the rise of nationalist parties such as Alternative for Germany, France’s National Front and Italy’s Five Star Movement, European countries seemed poised to return to the petty, insular politics that had led to two world wars. And then Emmanuel Macron came along.
Just as Europe appeared sure to be torn asunder, the 39-year-old former socialist foot soldier has startled France and the wider European community by running for the French presidency and raising an until now unconsidered possibility.
The post-war world as we have known it may not actually be doomed, and Europe’s liberal electorates might not have to wait as long as they feared for the anti-Brexit backlash.
France’s “young meteor”, as one British newspaper described him, has cast himself as defender of the old guard. “Our fight for fraternity will be a fight for Europe,” he told an enthusiastic crowd in Lyon on Sunday. “For many of us,” he continued, Brexit had been “unthinkable”.
Emmanuel Jean-Michel Frédéric Macron was born into privilege in northern French city Amiens on December 21, 1977, the son of Jean-Michel, a neurology professor, and Françoise, a doctor. He spent his last year of secondary school at the prestigious Lycée Henri-IV in Paris and remained in the capital to study at Paris Nanterre University.
The motive for his move to the capital was not entirely academic. While at high school in Amiens, 15-year-old Macron fell in love with his French teacher, Brigitte Trogneux, 24 years his senior. The relationship survived his parents’ efforts to put distance between them, and the couple, who married in 2007, have been together ever since.
Macron’s ambition, untarnished by never having held elected office, has had an unusual provenance. In Paris, he found his way to left-wing public service via the Left Bank, studying philosophy, before following his first degree with another, in public affairs, at the Paris Institute of Political Studies.
Enrolling in the National School of Administration, the sausage factory of the French civil service, a successful if undistinguished career as a bureaucrat appeared to beckon. But in 2008, after a four-year stint spent auditing government departments for the Inspectorate General of Finances, and a three-year membership of the centre-left Socialist Party, Macron took an abrupt turn to the right and joined the Rothschild investment bank.
It proved shrewd. In 2012, he played a key role in a €9 billion takeover deal between Nestlé and a Pfizer subsidiary, and overnight became a millionaire.
That same year, his career took another unexpected turn. After the Socialist Party took power in 2012, Macron returned to public service, this time as a senior member of President François Hollande’s staff. The meteor was in flight. In 2014, Macron emerged unexpectedly from the political shadows to become minister of the economy responsible for industrial regeneration.
It soon became apparent that Hollande and his prime minister, Manuel Valls, had invited a cuckoo into the Socialist nest. From the vantage point of his new platform, Macron began sniping at the party that had so recently elevated him. On one occasion, he famously denigrated Hollande’s supertax for millionaires as: “Cuba, without the sun.”
In April last year, buoyed by the rise of supposedly spontaneous internet-based movement Young People for Macron, the minister took the extraordinary step of forming his own political movement. En Marche! – “On The Move!” – shared his initials.
There followed an awkward four months, during which Hollande publicly ordered his troublesome young protégé to toe the line, but Macron seized the initiative. He resigned in August, and three months later announced his candidacy for the presidency.
The challenge, he said, was “not for me to bring together the left or bring together the right. The challenge is to bring together France”. As a firm supporter of the European Union, Macron is offering an alternative vision for those seeking change but fearful of the rise of extremism: intelligent evolution rather than bloody revolution.
As British magazine The Spectator noted, at 39 Macron "would normally be considered at least 15 years too young to mount a serious presidential challenge in France". Regardless, "his rapid rise makes [him] a genuine original in French politics and his opponents do not know what to make of him".
Macron has attracted flak from left and right. His former colleagues have accused him of stabbing Hollande in the back. Marine Le Pen, queen of the politics of envy, dismissed him as “a candidate of the banks” and a symbol of “the filthy-rich left”.
Amid rumours of impending WikiLeaks revelations, Russia has been implicated in clumsy online attempts to discredit Macron by suggesting that he is backed by “a very wealthy gay lobby”. Macron has laughed it all off.
His lack of elected experience ought to count against him, but instead it's bolstering his claim to being a new broom. His relative youth is appealing to younger voters. And his wife, recently featured approvingly on the cover of Paris Match, gives Macron the advantage of the sort of interesting private life most French politicians would kill for.
With the first round of the French presidential election more than two months away, it’s too early to say whether Macron is poised to re-enter the Élysée Palace in triumph, but it seems increasingly possible. The ruling Socialist Party, hamstrung by the unpopularity of its sitting president, Hollande, is in disarray, and former prime minister François Fillon, the candidate of the right-wing Les Républicains, appears mortally wounded by allegations of financial impropriety. Polls are starting to suggest that only Macron, a firm supporter of open-door immigration and refugee policies, can now defeat Le Pen and halt the rise of Europe’s far right.
If he does, at 39, he will become the youngest French president ever. He will also have demonstrated that, when it comes to the growing hunger for political change, the cold embrace of right-wing extremism isn’t the only option for disenchanted electorates across Europe.
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