EMMANUEL MACRON: SUCH A PERFECT YOUNG MAN
Translation by Regan Kramer
A Man of Letters
There was his childhood, which he says he spent “somewhat outside of the world,” burying himself in books, and living “largely through words and texts.” A childhood during which, as he so elegantly puts it in his book, Révolution, “the secret, intimate course of fiction eclipsed appearances, granting the world a depth that we barely graze in ordinary life.” With, as his chosen guides, Colette, who taught him what a cat and a flower truly are, and Giono, “the cold wind of Provence and the truth about people’s character;” as well as Gide and Cocteau in the role of “irreplaceable companions.”
There was, obviously, the grandmother he worshipped and with whom he spent long hours as a child “learning grammar, history and geography,” and reading Molière and Racine, Georges Duhamel, Mauriac and Giono out loud to her for “whole days at a time”. A grandmother who also introduced him to Gide and Camus; a woman whose own mother was illiterate and who saw mastering reading as the key path to social mobility in a democracy. A grandmother whose collection of classics in plain white covers now has pride of place on Emmanuel Macron’s bookshelves in Le Touquet.
There are also his parents, voracious readers, especially his father, who guided him when he was learning Greek and began to explore philosophy.
There is that quasi-initiatory journey he made – like so many others before him – moving “up” (as the French say) to Paris at age 16 – the “best of all possible adventures,” one that allowed him to “walk the same paths as the characters of Flaubert and Hugo,” and to be “carried away by the all-consuming ambition of Balzac’s young wolves.” Every visit to the French capital – a journey that, as he would later write, was something of an apotheosis for the bookish child of the provinces he was – brought him face to face with his heroes at every street corner. Strolling through the city let him slip instantly “into the world of Arsène Lupin, the Count of Monte-Cristo and the Misérables.”
There is the fact that he met Brigitte, obviously. A French and Latin teacher who describes herself as a dedicated scholar of 19th-century literature.” She also studied the earliest novels by Chrétien de Troyes (author of some of the earliest books about knights and chivalry), and is, in her own words, “enthralled by Flaubert.” A woman he got to know through the theatre. And thus through words, of course.
“Every Friday afternoon I would work on writing a play with her. That went on for months. Once it was written, we decided to direct it together. We talked about everything. The writing turned into a pretext. And I realized that we had always known each other,” he wrote in Révolution.
There is the vocation as a writer the excitable teen was convinced was at his very core, and that Brigitte shared and encouraged, “when she was my French teacher” (although she explains that she was only ever his drama teacher) as he told Jérôme Garcin, in an interview in L’Obs, a weekly newsmagazine.1
There is the fact of not having gotten into France’s top school, the École normale supérieure (ENS). Although he did get into (but chose not to attend) an ENS, the one that used to be in Fontenay, he failed the admissions exam for the better-known, more prestigious school in Paris – twice, and eventually wound up going to ENA (the École nationale de l’administration), another prestigious school, one that is known for producing future politicians. For many years he tried to sweep that under the rug, going so far as to give people the misleading impression that he had attended ENS. That thwarted ambition was clearly a blow to his pride. A failure that Macron blames largely on being too deeply in love to study properly for the exam, but a blow nonetheless. In France, for a certain class of people, the school on Rue de l’Ulm bestows an intellectual aura like no other. More than social standing, it confers an almost-statutory standing as an intellectual talisman earned by the likes of Sartre, Althusser, Michel Foucault and more.
Jean-Pierre Jouyet, 23 years Macron’s senior, is the person who gave him his start in politics. He is now France’s ambassador to Great Britain. The two men enjoy discussing both English- and Russian-language literature. For quite some time, Jouyet, who also attended ENA, believed that Macron – who preferred to talk about the job he’d had with Paul Ricœur, or the work of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida than his time at ENA – had gone to ENS. A classmate from ENA remembers having overheard Macron say that he had attended ENS without contradicting him. As though “a semi-truth based on a narrative amphigory could eventually turn it into actual truth.”
There is the encounter with Paul Ricœur, whose assistant Macron used to say he had been. In fact, according to several people, including the philosopher Myriam Revault d’Allonnes, a member of the Ricœur Foundation’s advisory board, as quoted in Le Monde,2 Macron had been Ricœur’s editorial assistant only, and for a single book, La Mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli.3 It was a proximity from which “he drew a wildly exaggerated symbolic benefit.”
Be that as it may, with his degree in philosophy from Paris-X Nanterre, this “philosopher in politics” – as the journal Le 1 (whose cofounder, Henry Hermand, is one of Emmanuel Macron’s benefactors) described him in July 2015 – took advantage of that entry on his CV to stand out. A way of distinguishing himself from his fellow politicians by highlighting that unique facet of his. A way of saying – like the enfant terrible of the world of finance, Matthieu Pigasse, who both runs the French branch of Lazard Bank and makes no bones about his love of heavy metal rock-punk music and his distaste for the bourgeoisie – “I am not the ambitious young man I seem to be.”
A way of flaunting a touch of soul. A romantic dimension. A way of creating the image of a sort of Chateaubriand of the digital era, with a touch of Guizot for our times.
Then there is also the novel, Babylone, Babylone, which he wrote when he was 17 and was studying for his entrance exams. A sprawling picaresque saga about Cortés and the colonization of Latin America. It’s hard not to see a novel about the Conquistadors as a sign of an all-conquering spirit. His mother says the book – which Emmanuel Macron sent to several publishers, who turned him down politely – was inspired by a trip she and his father took to Mexico. “He absorbed what we told him and then did a huge amount of research on his own,” she explains.4
Although it was never published, he did ask several people to read the manuscript. His grandmother, of course; as well as his father, his friend Marc Ferracci, who he studied for the ENA entrance exam with, and who he had introduced to Yves Bonnefoy, the “poet of unveiling and transparency who tries to see what’s hidden.” A friend who, along with Henry Hermand, was a witness at his wedding. After Emmanuel Macron failed the ENA exam, he gave his friend a book by René Char, Les Feuillets d’Hypnos5 (which he quoted from at a rally in Lyon), which bore as an epigraph this line from the author, a partisan during World War II: “Don’t dwell in the rut of outcomes,” a very revealing injunction.
There is the obsessive care he lavished on writing Révolution, weighing his words with precision, debating whether a comma was necessary or not, up to the last minute. Like a sort of mise en abyme, a way of getting as close as possible to what his grandmother would have wanted. He was still fiddling with the text on the eve of announcing his bid for the presidency.
There is the “quasi-pathological relationship” – in his wife’s words – that Emmanuel has with books. “Books are the only gifts he ever gives, and bookstores the only ones he ever enters.” One day one of Brigitte’s granddaughters exclaimed, exasperated, “Toy stores exist too, you know!”
Then there is the “confession” he made to Jérôme Garcin: “Nothing ranks higher than writing for me. I still dwell on it, like a lost paradise.” There is also the connection he makes between politics and literature that allows him to say, somewhat pedantically, that he finds it “impossible to make a connection between reality and transcendence without going through writing.”
There’s all that, and, over the course of his rallies, there have been quotes he has emphasized, repeated references to the “sad passions” that are so dear to Spinoza and to Balzac’s Comédie humaine. They appear like highlighted signals, beacons attempting to impose the image of a cultivated politician, a philosopher and man of letters in our digital era, in a word, a politician like no other.
A politician who boasts friendships with both Erik Orsenna and François Sureau, respectively representing the “literary left and right,” which corresponds, he told L’Obs, both to his own ideas and to “the French character” – which, to hear his comments in Lyon about French culture – doesn’t exist. An odd couple...
Erik Orsenna, member of the French Academy, globe-trotter and business consultant who, in his youth, was a member of the PSU (Unified Socialist Party, situated on the spectrum between the Socialist and Communist Parties), got to know Macron through his role on the Attali Committee.6 Optimistic, enthusiastic and cheerful, with eclectic tastes, Orsenna, who had once been an adviser to François Mitterrand, supported Macron’s candidacy. He appreciates the young president, who he sees as a “true lover of literature,” who wants everyone “to have the chance to spread their wings. He’s a mix of Ricœur and Levinas. He sees the promise in every individual. Levinas, for the face. Ricœur, for the promise. He truly believes that progress’s most profound meaning is related to culture. Culture means being greater than oneself. It’s the opposite of depression. He’s the opposite of Hollande, who saw society in an essentially technical light.”7
François Sureau, who was educated by Jesuits at the Franklin School (where Brigitte Macron taught in Paris), is darker and more tormented. A brilliant lawyer and high-ranking judicial officer (his actual title is “Master of Requests on the State Council”) he recently wrote a book about Charles de Foucauld called Je ne pense plus voyager.8 He is also a friend of François Fillon, one of Macron’s opponents in the first round of the election.
Two writers who act as standard bearers. As though the two-year-old boy who strutted past his parents with an open book in his hands to try to impress them was still looking for role models and references. As though they were missing from his own personal history, his family saga – aside from the grandmother, who has been magnified and placed on a permanent pedestal. Young Macron, who wrote a novel and who swears that he has written others and still writes, fits the “found child” category, as defined by Marthe Robert in Origins of the Novel9 (which offers a psychoanalytical reading of novels based on one of Freud’s texts). The typology is the base of chimeric or picaresque novels like Don Quixote.
Having hung onto a dreamer’s view of the world, there is, as a close friend points out, something Bovary-esque about him: Emmanuel Macron seems to suffer from permanent dissatisfaction. Like a gambler constantly drawn to the roulette wheel, he returns, over and over again, to literature that offers him heroic role models who make their dreams come true, as he would like to do!
1. 16 February 2017.
2. 2 September 2016.
3. “Memory, History, Forgetting” Le Seuil, 2000.
4. Interview with the author, 20 January 2017.
5. Translator’s Note: The Pages of Hypnosis, not published in English.
6. Translator’s Note: The Attali Committee, composed of people from civil society, was created by then president Nicolas Sarkozy to look for ways to stimulate economic growth.
7. Interview with the author, 14 January 2017.
8. (I Don’t Plan to Travel Any More, Gallimard, 2016
9. Indiana University Press, 1980 (1972).
The Political UFO
“In the end of the day, are you doing all this for your grandmother?” We’ve been sitting in the back seat of his car for 10 minutes or so. He’s just finished an in-depth visit of a farm in the Mayenne region. He has used moist towelettes to clean the mud from his dress shoes, which are ill-suited to the environment. He looks surprised. Staring out the window, his gaze lost in the distance, he says softly, “Maybe so.”
Maybe “all this” is for his grandmother. For “Manette,” (her nickname) who he refers to at some of his rallies, who died shortly after he entered Hollande’s Cabinet. “I don’t know how she would feel about what’s going on now. It would probably have worried her.” But isn’t she the one who made him believe that he was destined for greatness? He answers in a gentle voice, free of that slightly metallic tessiture he sometimes has, “She never raised me to believe I had a particular destiny, but she undoubtedly girded me for one. She was very demanding, and she offered unconditional love. That’s a rare combination.” A bit choked-up, Emmanuel Macron is speaking so softly one can barely hear him, “It’s liberating. It’s true, I was incredibly lucky. It gives you tremendous self-confidence and incredible freedom, but by the same token, it makes demands on you. Deep inside, I have always believed that the freedom I granted myself also required me [he clears his throat] to help others. Because that’s how my grandmother was. But maybe... I got into this race after she was gone. She probably would have thought it was crazy.” In a strangled, nearly childlike voice, he concludes, “But she would have let me do it.”
A disarming confession. A disarming way to admit that, yes, Manette has something to do with his run, even though, he says, he never discussed the possibility with her. Nevertheless, he remains convinced that she always knew he would go into politics, or at the very least, that he would aim to serve the public. She always knew, but (his soft voice is now practically like a little boy’s): “I never told her that that was my goal. In fact, I never lived my life that way.”
In any case, his grandmother’s death in 2013, when he was deputy secretary general at the Élysée Palace, led to a profound break with François Hollande.
At the time, Emmanuel Macron was devastated. So much so that Brigitte called a few people who were close to him to ask them to get in touch. One of them remembers that when they got together, Macron told him, “That’s it, I don’t want to have anything to do with Hollande any more.” He went on to describe the president’s reaction when his young secretary-general announced the death of a person he was very close to: a cliché along the lines of “That’s too bad, I was sad when I lost my grandmother, too.” It made him see the Commander in Chief as a cold-fish, short on human feelings. “That was the turning point,” the friend insists, “after that, he started treating Hollande as an equal,” because he didn’t feel like he owed him anything any more, as he himself admitted a few months later.
When the question is posed directly to Macron, he replies, “It’s true. I wouldn’t have wanted to react the way François Hollande did when he heard about my grandmother’s death!”1
Who would have thought that a political fate might hang in the balance of such an offhand comment?
Yet in all truth, it seems that, unlike what he said at the start of his career in government, Emmanuel Macron had been thinking of the presidency for years. His friend Marc Ferracci, who he met during an ENA exam-prep class, believes that “Emmanuel is someone for whom the political project became anchored in his responsibilities, his life and his career very early on.” In fact, his best man remembers that “several of us warned him, when he decided to work for Rothschild, that it was political suicide in a country like France. But he said that no, on the contrary, it would provide him with financial freedom.”
Macron is so aware of the profound mistrust the world of politics now inspires that he distances himself from it, not wanting to be perceived as having had anything to do with it. He never, for example, talks about his own first incursions into politics. Like when he considered running for office in Le Touquet, the resort town where his wife’s family has a beach house where he and Brigitte used to spend almost every weekend, or again in the Hautes Pyrénées. Nor does he talk much about his early days with Jean-Pierre Chevènement. They don’t jibe all that well with his intellectual affinity for Michel Rocard, although he does refer to the esteem he has for the former cabinet minister. Still, he didn’t just emerge fully-formed from Zeus’s head. He wasn’t raised in a sterile environment or by a family that didn’t care about politics, spending all his time reading the classics, as his earliest portraits would have one believe.
No, the truth is that he has “always been attracted to and interested in politics,” and he was raised in a clearly left-leaning family. Both his parents and the grandmother he adored – whose home the family celebrated Mitterrand’s victory in 1981 – were interested in politics, although they “weren’t activists, nor was I, for that matter,” he points out, as a way of emphasizing his “electoral virginity.” So, along with the novels and stories, at age 16, he devoured Jacques Attali’s “fascinating.” first Verbatim.2 It’s a pretty dry book for a teenager, but it made him feel like he was penetrating the nuclear core of power. Later he also read most of Jean Lacouture’s political biographies: the ones about de Gaulle, as well as those about François Mitterrand and Pierre Mendès France. He was familiar with Michel Rocard’s books before he met the man himself, thanks to Henry Hermand, and had read some of General de Gaulle’s own books, as well as his speeches. “I re-read him regularly, I like his style, his spare, clean phrases,” Macron confesses.
The first political events he remembers? The Socialist victory in 1981 left only “a vague souvenir” (he was only 4 years old after all!) but he remembers Mitterrand’s reelection, in 1988 – which he once again watched at his grandmother’s, much better. Then he can list, but without great enthusiasm, a few memorable events: the fall of the Berlin Wall, on November 9, 1989, “a fairly structural event”; the campaign for the Maastricht Treaty, including the famous debate between François Mitterrand and Philippe Séguin; the declaration by Jacques Delors, then president of the European Commission, which laid the groundwork for the Common Market; the death by suicide of former Prime Minister Pierre Bérégovoy in Nevers, in 1993, which “he remembers quite well.” He also remembers the 1995 presidential elections, even though he wasn’t quite old enough to vote yet, and had just moved to Paris to attend the prestigious Lycée Henri IV, a very demanding sixth-form, or prep school. “I needed to get my bearings, and to pass my high-school exams.” Seven years later, for the 2002 presidential elections – when the country was stunned by Jean-Marie Le Pen’s presence in the second round – Macron was far away from it all, in Nigeria, a country at war where he had chosen to do the work experience required by ENA.
“April 21, 2002, which was such a shock for my generation, was very strange for me. It was like getting struck by lightning. I felt stunned, and so far from Paris. There I was in Abuja, the federal capital, working with a fairly right-wing ambassador, Jean-Marc Simon. That very night, after the results of the first round, we had to deal with getting back the bodies of two French people who had disappeared in a plane accident.”3 He was shocked, of course, but he has said that he was even more surprised by what happened after the tidal wave in favor of Jacques Chirac. “Nothing changed, politically speaking, no conclusions were drawn.” At the time, the young man was reaching the end of his “Chevènement phase” (in fact, in 2002, he had voted for Chevènement in the first round, before going with Chirac in the second).
In international terms, he remembers 9/11, of course. He was enrolled at ENA by then, but happened to be in Amiens. “I had gone to pick Brigitte up from school, she was just getting out, and I told her about the attacks. Everyone was shocked beyond belief.”
For the 2007 elections, Emmanuel Macron was in Paris, working for the Inspectorate General of Finances, an inter-departmental oversight and auditing body. He says he doesn’t remember who he voted for in the first round, but knows he put Ségolène Royal’s name in the ballot box in Round 2. He begs to differ with those who see similarities between his campaign in 2017, and hers, in 2007. “She had a tone, and she ran a very good campaign, but she never managed to get the Socialist Party in line behind her. Even though, as is often the case, she was the first to suggest some good ideas, particularly about encouraging more participative democracy.” Still, he insists, “We are outside of the party system; she chose renewal from within of a party that she had represented for over 20 years. Our political choice is more radical, and allows me more freedom to recompose and renew things.” He argues that times have changed. “The crisis of democracy was not as intense, and the country was not in the same condition.” Still, we insist, too: still, his quasi-mystical references invoking Ségolène Royal calling, in her blue tunic, for her followers to “try to be better people” and having them chant “Fra-ter-ni-ty, Fra-ter-ni-ty.” Didn’t that inspire him? No, truly, he doesn’t see what we’re getting at. “It’s true, I like to bring people together and to galvanize them with strong convictions, but comparisons are odious. I won’t be wearing a tunic any time soon, I can assure you,” he quips.4
It’s a dodge, but in fact he does use the same register as the former Socialist presidential candidate and former president of the Poitou-Charente regional council. Particularly when he talks about love to his supporters, like in Toulon, where “Je vous aime,” was practically the first thing he said. And when he sounds like a digital-era televangelist, saying that he’s convinced that, “It’s a huge mistake not to talk about love in politics, because I think that we all need to stay in touch with our irrational, emotional side.”5 And to add, getting carried away, “I wouldn’t have this kind of devotion and dedication, I wouldn’t be able to expose myself by reaching out the way I do if I didn’t love the French people. So at a certain point, you have to say so, because they need to hear that.” Then he adds, “at some point, something happens, it’s kairos.6 You can’t do anything about it, either you achieve it or you don’t. The power of the moment takes over. It overwhelms you. You have to do what you believe in, give what you have to give and are able to give, with your whole heart. When things are bigger than you, you have to have that humility. You can always rationalize it or gussy it up afterwards, but it’s not entirely true.”
Is the candidate of En Marche!, who was educated by Jesuits, a Christ-like mystic? He has been copiously mocked on that score, especially after his first big rally, at the Porte de Versailles, which he ended with his arms outstretched like Jesus on the cross, and his voice cracking before a cheering crowd.
“Macron is actually Bonaparte. And I’ve told him why I say so,” explains Haïm Korsia, the Chief Rabbi of France, who knows Macron well. “He showed up at a time when heads were starting to roll: first Sarkozy’s, then Juppé’s, Valls’s and Hollande’s. And he has that fiery youthful self-confidence that Bonaparte had when he first appeared on the scene, after the Revolution and the Ancien Régime. He possesses a tremendous capacity for leadership. It’s very impressive; young people see themselves reflected in his self-searching.”7
“That name, ‘En Marche!’8Korsia goes on, is not anodyne. It’s an allusion to a line from Saint Exupéry’s Night Flight: “In life, there are no solutions. There are forces at work: you have to create them, and the solutions follow.” It’s also a reference to Giacometti’s “Walking Man” sculpture, and to when God tells Abraham, “Leave certainty behind, and get moving.” “Leaving Egypt means leaving narrowness and confinement behind,” the Chief Rabbi suggests, resolutely on the candidate’s side.
It’s quite entertaining to realize that Emmanuel Macron has had a long correspondence with that old friend of Jacques Chirac’s, who affectionately nicknamed him “Rabbinito”. But is Macron “possessed,” as his detractors sometimes put it, with a touch of irony? Having been raised by a family that was not religious and never set foot in church, and decided to get himself baptized at age 12, does he truly believe he has a mission? “I think he’s got a spiritual side. The phrase that epitomizes all the prophets – “Behold, here I am” – suits him. He’s capable of abandoning everything in order to build something to serve his country. He’s not bound by anything, which makes everyone else crazy,” Korsia, who introduced the former cabinet minister to Catholic and Muslim leaders, goes on. He points out that, when Macron came to Yom Kippur services at his synagogue (with no television cameras present), “he gave an improvised commentary about the meaning of Jonas... who refused his mission.” The rabbi believes that the real secret of the candidate of En Marche!, who knows the texts and has a “profound and respectful approach to rites from all religions,” is that what he does makes him happy. “There’s nothing febrile about him.”
Jacques Attali tempers that somewhat. To hear him tell it, Emmanuel Macron “believes that he was obviously fated for greatness. He’s a spoiled child. When push comes to shove, he’s capable of saying that he deserves to have it all. And deserves it to such an extent that he shouldn’t have to make an effort to get it. Don’t forget, I’m the one who first went to him. And, it’s true, told him right away that he was presidential material,”9 he repeats. Another friend has a similar analysis. “Getting to where he is takes hubris, the belief that you’re above the crowd. Otherwise how could you imagine someone age 38 leaving a well-paid job in the private sector to become Deputy Secretary General at the Élysée Palace, then Minister of the Economy, then quitting the party and founding his own, if you didn’t have a profound conviction that you were born to accomplish that? He’s probably been nurturing the idea for years.”
What a strange character Emmanuel Macron is. A man who is both entirely comfortable being seductive, yet who is also haughtily honest about who he is: a disruptive political outsider, a technocrat and a star. A candidate who looks like Justin Bieber, as Marine Le Pen quipped, who advised his stand-ins to organize their rallies as though they were “political rock concerts.” And a man with an occasional glimmer of exaltation in his eyes when he’s being cheered by the crowd.
Strange character indeed. Unique in the political bestiary. “A bat,” is the analysis of Jean d’Ormesson, a novelist who the then minister invited to lunch. “He struck me as being very intelligent, very easy to get along with, just like his wife, for that matter,” the member of the French Academy comments, while also noticing “a kind of intoxication.” The writer remembers that the politician-philosopher and he spoke mostly about politics. “I told him, ‘All politicians have an animal totem, you know. You’re a bat:10 “I’m a bird, see my wings? I’m a mouse, see my paws?” At some point you’ll have to make up your mind.”10
Is Emmanuel Macron a bat? Or a lizard, like the ones whose tails he keeps in jars, most likely because he’s fascinated by the reptiles’ ability to cut off that appendix to save their own lives. And to keep their freedom.
1. Interview with the author, 28 February, 2017.
2. Verbatim I, Librairie générale française, 1986.
3. Interview with the author, 28 February, 2017.
4. Interview with the author, 28 February, 2017.
6. Unlike chronos, or “time,” kairos means a propitious moment for decision or action. In the Bible, it is God’s time, God’s decisive intervention for a redemptive incarnation. Merriam-Webster defines it as a time when conditions are right for the accomplishment of a crucial action. But kairos is worthless with out the intelligence that allows us to recognize it. So it is a faculty, or sixth sense within us that allows to seize the propitious moment.
7. Interview with the author, 27 January 2017.
8. Translator’s note: “En Marche” which literally means “Walking,” can be translated as “On the Move,” “At Work,” “It’s Working” or “Let’s Get Moving!”
9. Interview with the author, 26 January 2017.
10. Literally a “bald mouse” in French
11. Interview with the author, 17 January 2017.