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Can Emmanuel Macron Stem the Populist Tide?

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Emmanuel Macron, a paradox in executive form, was sitting in his office at the Élysée Palace, eight days after the European Parliamentary elections, a loss that was really a win. He was the President of “neither the right nor the left,” the youngest leader of America’s oldest ally, a grassroots campaigner who managed in a top-down style, a hyper-rationalist in a time of passions, the great liberal hope who tried and failed to be Donald Trump’s B.F.F. Last year, the Times declared that Macron had “laid claim to the mantle of leader of the free world.” Since his election, in 2017, he has emerged as the European Union’s strongest advocate and the most forceful defender of global progressivism.

Macron is coming off a stretch of domestic instability that has constrained his options, if not his ambition. There have been months of demonstrations by the gilets jaunes, a leaderless and often violent movement of social fury, much of it explicitly directed toward his person—“We squeezed Macron like a lemon,” protesters wrote on their yellow vests. “Macron, eat your dead.” Europe is in a tough spot, as it tries to reconcile the rise of populism with the need to confront migration, climate change, the digital revolution, the structure of its governance, and an eternal Brexit. In a number of countries, far-right parties have increased their share of the vote, helped along by Russian meddling and propagandists such as Steve Bannon, the former Trump adviser, who set himself up in an Italian monastery with dreams of building an international nationalist alliance. It had thus been a relief when, in the European elections in May, Macron’s party, La République En Marche! (L.R.E.M.), finished second to Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National by less than a percentage point. The green party also made a surprisingly strong showing. But Macron’s base had held. In the dicey, regressing world order of 2019, maintenance qualifies as progress.

It was early evening, and a muted light filled the Salon Doré, where Madame de Pompadour entertained and General de Gaulle worked. The gilding looked soft enough to eat with a spoon. Macron was in his shirtsleeves, an arm slung around the back of a black leather sofa. He was drinking coffee from a glass, which had been delivered by a majordomo to a warm “Merci.” I asked for his analysis of the election.

“What is new at the European scale is that the rise of extremism, especially coming from the far right, is everywhere,” he said, speaking in English (his choice). “A few months ago, a lot of people thought that this new coalition of the far right could have a majority or could block any majority at the European Parliament, which didn’t happen,” he said. “This is, for me, one of the positive outcomes of these elections, even if they were very much helped by foreign influences.”

I wondered if he counted Trump, who recently described Europe as a “foe,” among those influences.

“No, because I don’t totally mix or assimilate Trump and Bannon,” he said. “What is certain is that we have some ambiguities, especially when you look at Trump’s position regarding Brexit, and the fact that he promotes a hard Brexit.” He continued, “I think he has to clarify his position vis-à-vis Europe.”

Macron is the most transformative French President since François Mitterrand. Mitterrand captured the Presidency in 1981, at the age of sixty-four, after two defeats, uniting Communists and Socialists to bring the left to power for the first time since the establishment of the Fifth Republic, in 1958. Macron came to office by way of a fission of certainties, picking through the bombed-out middle to win his first election—for anything, ever—at the age of thirty-nine. He promised to remake politics, but people weren’t sure what or whom he represented. His habit of saying “en même temps” (“at the same time”)—less a tic than a reflection of his thought process—didn’t help. One best-selling book, “The Ambiguous Mr. Macron,” treated him as a Tom Ripley figure, an unnerving manipulator of dodgy provenance. “Qu’est-ce que le macronisme?” has become a staple headline in the French media. So what is Macronism? Stanislas Guerini, the head of L.R.E.M., told me, “First of all, it’s an audacity. And the capacity to take risks by telling the truth to the French.”

The theme of risk runs briskly through Macron’s life and career. The first big chance he took was starting a relationship with a teacher at his high school, Brigitte Auzière. (She is now his wife.) Armchair psychology may not be the most penetrating method of analyzing politicians, but, in this case, it seems appropriate: imagine the tolerance for, and even the disposition toward, exposure that one might develop after having gone up against a potent taboo and won while still a teen-ager. In finance, where he worked in his early thirties, Macron took on risk in the literal sense. Then he decided to become a politician. As minister of the economy in a country that is, at best, capitalism-ambivalent, he said things such as “We need young French people who dream of becoming billionaires.” When he ran for President, he circumvented and ultimately destroyed the two political parties that had dominated France since the de Gaulle era, launching his own party, which drew from the traditional left and the traditional right while undercutting them both. Macron had no shame about betraying former President François Hollande, who had given Macron his big break by appointing him to his cabinet. In an omertà-flouting passage of “Revolution,” Macron’s memoir, he wrote, “I was amazed to observe the naivety with which those who sought to bring me down were thereby admitting that, for them, politics essentially followed the law of the underworld: obedience in the hope of being personally compensated.” I asked the writer and economist Jacques Attali whether he thought that Macron, whom he knows well, has an appetite for risk. “No,” Attali answered. “Transgression.”

En marche means “on the move.” In Macron’s view, globalism is a fait accompli. The role of the state is to get people, goods, and capital moving at an optimal pace in the right direction. (It’s not an accident that Macron enjoys strong support among French expatriates.) Metaphors of movement suffuse his philosophy: “We are less the victims of our enemies than of our own inertia,” he writes, in “Revolution.” But, to his opponents, Macron is rootless. “I think he’s the President of flux,” François-Xavier Bellamy, a philosophy teacher who led the center-right ticket in the European elections, told me.

Macronism isn’t a lockstep vision of progress. Macron believes that inequality is unjust if created by circumstances, but acceptable if created by conscious choices. Perhaps his most fundamental belief is in the primacy of individual rights. “Today, it’s very difficult to harmonize or equalize all the different destinies or perspectives or situations of all our people,” he told me. “But, for societies to be sustainable, at least you have to restore the equality of chances.” This view is realistic, but it can also seem like a dereliction of the “social” part of Macron’s professed social-democratic beliefs. He spent much of his first two years in power pursuing economic reforms. This month, he announced that his Presidency is entering “Act II,” a phase in which it will focus on ecological and social justice. This is an opportunistic move, but not necessarily a hollow one. Macron is less interested in putting forth a grand vision of society than in taking bits of preëxisting ideology and recombining them so that traditional political demarcations no longer make sense. “I think that, in his heart of hearts, Macron is liberal,” Aurélien Taché, a deputy from the left wing of L.R.E.M., told me. “But, as President of the Republic, he has to face a part of public opinion that’s very hostile on these questions, and so he tries to have it both ways.”

Midway through his Presidency, Macron faces new and complicated forms of opposition. Last week marked the thirty-second consecutive Saturday that the gilets jaunes have occupied roundabouts and blocked roads and clashed with police all over France, answering Macron’s project of individual mobility with collective obstruction. The movement is dwindling, but in December the Bank of France estimated that the protests had already cost the economy €4.4 billion. According to a count, in May, by the independent journalist David Dufresne and Le Monde, two hundred and thirty-eight people had been wounded in the head during the protests. Twenty-four were blinded and five lost hands. The United Nations and the Council of Europe have condemned the French police for the use of excessive force. I asked Macron if this was acceptable to him. “No,” he answered. “But we have to face what we’ve experienced. For the first time, we had a social movement with a very high degree of violence. A unique one. I decided not to launch any special situation, nor to forbid these demonstrations. I did that because I didn’t want to reduce the level of freedom in this country. I think it would have been a mistake. But to think that we are just speaking about normal citizens demonstrating—I mean, that is pure bullshit.”

Emmanuel Macron wanted to be a writer. Not a pamphleteer (“Revolution,” his sole work to date, was published in 2016, as he prepared his Presidential campaign), or a hack (when he cancelled the televised interview that the French President traditionally gives on Bastille Day, an Élysée official explained that Macron’s thoughts were too complex for the forum), but a real man of letters, perhaps even an immortel (as the forty members of the Académie Française, with their engraved swords and feathered bicornes, are known). In his late adolescence, he spent years working on “Babylon, Babylon,” an epic novel set in sixteenth-century Mexico. “He spoke of it in a mysterious tone,” a former classmate told a reporter. “He suggested that it was something major, very successful.” No one but his future wife and a few friends ever saw it, even though one biography later claimed that it contained “terrible scenes” of human sacrifice.

I bring up the novel mindful of the tendency of print journalists to overinvest in the literary inclinations of politicians. A love of “Stendhal as much as Camus, Gide as much as Rimbaud,” such as Macron has professed, is not a moral quality. In France, the world of literature stands close to that of politics, as a source of borrowed credibility, in the way that the world of business does in America. Macron’s book project is a curio, but it typifies his intellectual décor, his taste for the solitary authorship of immodest fates. He wanted to be a writer. He became a politician. In the first chapter of “Revolution,” he confesses, “I cannot really explain this trajectory. I see only the result, which, fundamentally, is always a work in progress, of a long-standing undertaking and an all-embracing taste for freedom.” It’s not every protagonist who sees the Presidency as a fallback career.

He could have been a radiologist, like his younger brother. Or a kidney specialist, like their younger sister. The three siblings grew up in Amiens, the staid capital of the Somme department, in the north of France. Their mother, Françoise, a doctor, worked as a medical administrator at the city’s social-security agency; their father, Jean-Michel, still practices neurology. Macron’s paternal great-grandfather was a butcher born in Britain; his maternal great-grandmother was a housecleaner who couldn’t read. His grandparents, moving up the social ladder, were a teacher, a social worker, a railway worker, and a civil engineer. By the time of Macron’s childhood of music lessons and tennis matches, the family had assimilated into the bourgeoisie. (At some point, Macron even went to summer camp in Pennsylvania, from which he retains a single memory: “Sports!”) They lived in a brick house with a mansard roof and a front garden, set off from the sidewalk by an iron fence. His education at La Providence, a private Jesuit school, bypassed the free, secular educational system by which the rest of his family had made their ascent.

At a young age, Macron relegated his parents to supporting roles in the great drama of his early life, his relationship with his maternal grandmother, Germaine Noguès. Born in a village in the Pyrenees in 1916, Noguès, nicknamed Manette, was the only member of her family to pursue an education beyond middle school. She became a geography teacher and then a school principal. For decades, she presided over a cult of learning, hosting students in her apartment for after-school sessions of hot chocolate and Chopin. She seems to have been an exacting character: Macron has recalled that she “taught me how to work” from the age of five. He spent entire days reading aloud to her. Eventually, he asked his parents if he could live with her, a request that they denied.

“We were average parents,” Jean-Michel told Anne Fulda for her biography of Macron, “Such a Perfect Young Man,” from 2017. He recalled the family’s “banal life.” (He and Françoise, who divorced in 2010, appeared at their son’s inauguration but remain extremely discreet.) Emmanuel’s parents made his meals and washed his clothes, but Manette owned his imagination. In the early mornings, “I would go into her bedroom, and she would recount anecdotes of war and friendships,” Macron recalled. “I love only you,” she would tell him, instilling in her grandson-disciple a sense of confidence—of license, even—that remained with him for life. Well into adulthood, Macron spoke to Manette nearly every day. In 2013, she died in his arms. On the campaign trail, he invoked her constantly. Asked to bring to a television show an object that he would put in his office at the Élysée, he chose his childhood grammar book, “in which my grandmother taught me my first great texts.”

Macron went straight from loving his grandmother to loving Brigitte Auzière. They met in 1993, when he joined the drama club that she led at La Providence. (One of the first home-video-era heads of state, Macron appears on YouTube as the scarecrow in a production of “La Comédie du Langage.”) Macron was fifteen. Auzière was thirty-nine, a popular French and Latin teacher. The youngest daughter of a prominent clan of chocolatiers, she had a husband—a banker—and three children, one of whom had been in Macron’s class.

It’s one thing to be exceptional and another to be abnormal. The affair came as a shock to both families and as a threat to the social order. In an inversion of the anxieties that might have surrounded a relationship between a female student and a male teacher, Macron’s parents mourned the likelihood that their son wouldn’t have children. “I had a single preoccupation and purpose: to live the life I had chosen with the woman I loved,” Macron has written.

At the age of sixteen, he went to Paris to prepare for the entrance exams for university. At the terrifyingly prestigious Lycée Henri IV, whose alumni include Sartre, Weil, and Foucault, he was no longer the precocious boy wonder, just a distracted new kid from the provinces who wasn’t great at math. He twice fell short of the scores necessary to enter the illustrious École Normale Supérieure. Instead, he attended Sciences Po, the social-science university, and also got a master’s degree in philosophy. In these years, Macron worked as an archivist for the philosopher Paul Ricœur, who taught him, he recalled, “never to get entrenched in a theory that does not confront reality,” and whose acolytes are still arguing about how well Macron really knew him.

Macron spent his student years rushing to train stations to see Brigitte. “Every Friday afternoon, he would leave Paris to go to Amiens,” Aurélien Lechevallier, a classmate who is now one of Macron’s top foreign-affairs advisers, told me in 2017. The couple’s future was solidifying with the support of Manette. “If she hadn’t given her assent, nothing would have been possible,” Brigitte later said. In 2004, after attending the École Nationale d’Administration, the alma mater of French Presidents and Prime Ministers, Macron joined the government’s audit corps, as a finance inspector. This might sound unglamorous, but it’s actually as bouncy a springboard as there is into the French ruling class.

In 2006, as a participant in the German Marshall Fund’s transatlantic-leadership program, he visited America. Mark Houser, who hosted him in Pittsburgh, recalls “a dashing figure who was always wearing a suit and a nice accent scarf.” One afternoon, Houser took Macron’s group to a Mexican restaurant. When their food arrived, he warned them that the green habañero sauce was unbearably spicy. “Macron said, ‘Give me the bottle,’ and he held up a nacho and poured roughly a teaspoon of the sauce on his chip,” Houser told me. “I’m begging him not to eat it, and he’s sort of grinning, and puts it in his mouth. After about five seconds, his face turns bright red, and he looks at us and says, ‘I have made a big mistake.’ ”

As a finance inspector, Macron travelled around France, getting to know important people in the public and private sectors. “He could seduce a chair,” the writer Emmanuel Carrère has observed. He ended up seducing Henry Hermand, an octogenarian who had made a fortune developing suburban shopping centers. Hermand loaned Macron five hundred and fifty thousand euros to buy his first apartment in Paris and introduced him to the city’s power brokers. When Macron and Auzière married, in 2007, Hermand helped pay for the wedding and served as best man, according to Vanessa Schneider, of Le Monde. At twenty-nine, Macron had a wife and stepchildren; he now has seven step-grandchildren, whom he considers his own. (They call him Daddy.) He has cultivated his family tree so that it reaches further into both the past and the future than those of most of his peers.

In 2007, Macron joined the Attali Commission, a bipartisan group created by then President Nicolas Sarkozy to spur growth in the French economy. Macron essentially wrote the group’s report. “He seizes his chance, works like crazy, and takes power, making himself anointed and adulated by this incredible circle of French bosses and intellectuals,” Gaspard Gantzer, a former classmate of Macron’s, has written. The businessman Alain Minc reportedly counselled Macron to go into finance, saying, “To do politics today, you have to be rich or ascetic.” Macron joined Rothschild & Company, the merchant bank, in 2008. “He was the guy who would constantly say ‘Thank you,’ ” a former colleague told the Financial Times. “He didn’t know what EBITDA was.” (It stands for “earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization.”) Macron learned quickly and became a managing director in the mergers-and-acquisitions division in record time. On occasion, he got in over his head. The journalist Adrien de Tricornot has written an eye-popping account of Macron’s role in advising the journalists of Le Monde to accept a takeover bid from Minc. One day, de Tricornot arrived at a fancy office building and, by pure chance, saw Minc exiting with Macron. Suspecting that Macron had been playing both sides, de Tricornot followed him back inside the building to confront him, and ended up chasing him around in a farcical game of hide-and-seek. (Cornered on the top floor, Macron said that he was waiting for some clients.) De Tricornot wrote, “In the end, I have the impression that Macron served only himself.”

In 2012, when Nestlé decided to acquire Pfizer’s baby-food division, Peter Brabeck, then the chairman of the board of the Nestlé Group, turned to Macron, whom he knew from the Attali Commission, to oversee the twelve-billion-dollar deal. Macron became wealthy overnight. “I neither share the enthusiasm of those who hold a life in business to be the ultimate horizon of our times, nor do I support the bitter criticism of those who regard money as a leper and the symbol of man’s exploitation of man,” he declares, in his memoir. “Both of these perspectives appear to me to be flawed by a childish romanticism that is irrelevant to our era.” As the novelist Philippe Besson has observed, our hero, at some point, started living the novel he didn’t write.

Macron finished the Nestlé deal in April, 2012. A few weeks later, he started work at the Élysée, as François Hollande’s top economic adviser. It was a prestigious but frustrating job: Hollande had campaigned on a tax-and-spend platform, but in the middle of his term, grappling with high unemployment and the eurozone debt crisis, he swerved toward market-driven reforms. Businesspeople saw Macron as their most sympathetic liaison in the government. (When Hollande proposed a seventy-five-per-cent wealth tax, Macron called it “Cuba without the sun.”) “President in twenty years?” L’Express mused, dubbing Macron “the Mozart of the Élysée.” Even so, his influence was limited. “Going to see him is like pissing in a violin, it’s pointless,” one executive told reporters.

That August, Hollande suddenly fired his economy minister over a critical speech, and he and the Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, scrambled to find a replacement, eventually landing on Macron. “Two, three people were approached, but they refused,” Jacques Attali told me. “They had to find someone else in half an hour.” They probably thought that they had installed a safely pliable technocrat, but Valls and Macron began butting heads immediately. Attali recalled, “Two days later, Valls called me and said, ‘Please tell your friend he is only a technician, and he has to stay a technician.’ ” (Valls denies this.) Macron had an independent streak; he kept a high profile in the media, making occasional trouble for the government and a name for himself. Valls reportedly called him “the microbe”; another minister referred to him in the press as “the little powdered marquis.” One day, Macron mused to some reporters that “growth was at half-mast.” According to a memoir by the Socialist politician Ségolène Royal, a furious Valls accosted Macron in the middle of the National Assembly, calling out, “And your dick, is it at half-mast?” (Valls denies this, too.)

The rivalry reached a critical point in early 2015, when Macron brought a labor-reform bill before the Assembly for a vote. The bill attempted to slaughter some sacred cows of the French system and, in doing so, aggravated internal tensions between Socialists who, like Macron, rejected the “traditional school of thought, which is to throw more public money into the system,” and those who believed that throwing public money into the system was socialism’s entire point. Macron buttonholed lawmakers, trying to woo them one by one. He spoke on the Assembly floor for a total of eighteen hours. At the last minute, Valls invoked Article 49.3 of the French constitution—a rarely used maneuver that allows the government, at the price of some embarrassment, to pass a bill without a vote. Macron’s supporters say that Valls forced the maneuver in order to undermine Macron when, in fact, he had the votes. The episode figures large in the folklore of Macron’s political education, as the embodiment of the self-interested gridlock that he became determined to circumvent. Valls, however, claims that Macron was on board with the 49.3 maneuver all along. “Macron’s team wanted to have a story against me,” he told me. “So they explained that I wanted the 49.3 because I was jealous of him.”

Macron launched En Marche! in Amiens in April, 2016, calling it “a political movement” that aimed to generate “new ideas.” Its name borrowed from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (“In life there are no solutions, there are forces in motion; create them and the solutions will follow”) and also happened to contain the same initials as its founder. An inner circle began to form around him. With a few exceptions, its members were young, affluent white men, who were excited by Macron’s commitment to shaking up a status quo that had been established in the postwar era and hardly updated since. Publicly, Macron presented the movement as a personal project that would complement his work as minister. “It’s not a movement to have an umpteenth candidate for the Presidential campaign, that’s not my priority today,” he said. “My priority is the situation of the country.”

According to Gaspard Gantzer, Hollande’s chief communications adviser at the time, Hollande paid little attention to Macron’s side gig, saying, “That’s great, cher Emmanuel. If you think it’s good, then you’ve got to do it.” The power struggle between Macron and Valls, however, continued to escalate. “I was Prime Minister, and I had a minister who was preparing a Presidential campaign,” Valls told me (neglecting to mention that he was preparing a Presidential run of his own at the time). In May, En Marche! launched a door-to-door canvassing operation. In August, Macron and Brigitte appeared on the cover of Paris Match, frolicking on a Biarritz beach in their bathing suits. A few weeks later, Macron resigned from his government post. “François never believed Emmanuel would do it,” Attali told me, referring to a Presidential run. “When Emmanuel left, François told him, ‘I hope you’re going to support me for the next election.’ ”

Macron joined the race in November, 2016, as a market-friendly, socially liberal, pro-European candidate of “neither the right nor the left.” Hollande, with an approval rating of four per cent, decided not to seek reëlection, an unprecedented move for an incumbent President, and Valls unexpectedly lost the Socialist primary. Then prosecutors placed François Fillon, the leading candidate of the center-right, under investigation, claiming that he’d created fake parliamentary jobs for his wife and at least some of his five kids. Both of the traditional parties were falling apart. Macron’s message resonated in a center hollowed out by intra-party factionalism.

In France, the general election comprises two rounds. It’s said that first you vote with your heart and then you vote with your head. In 2017, you could have had a coronary. Macron’s second-round opponent was Marine Le Pen, the hard-bitten dynast of the racist, xenophobic far-right Front National. (She changed the Party’s name to Rassemblement National after the election.) Le Pen hit hard on the themes of élitism, protectionism, and sovereignty that had served Trump and Brexit so well. “Monsieur Macron is the candidate of wild globalization, of Uberization, of precariousness, of social brutality, of war of all against all, of economic ransacking, in particular by our big companies,” she said. Even walking around a Pyrenean mountaintop in jeans, out of which he’d ironed every bit of ease, Macron projected a pressed urbanity. He was the perfect foil, the incarnation of everything that Le Pen wanted her army of haters to hate.

Their debate, held just a few days before the second vote, was an unmitigated catastrophe for Le Pen. Macron held his ground; she lost her composure, along with her command of a number of basic facts. Of all the lines the candidates slung at each other in the course of the election, the one that remains indelible for me is Macron saying very calmly to Le Pen, who had just confused two French companies, “One makes phones, the other makes turbines.” Four days later, Macron, with sixty-six per cent of the vote, won the race. “Ode to Joy,” the European anthem, played as he strode onto a stage set up in front of the Louvre’s pyramid, having accomplished in thirteen stupendously weird months what a paper once predicted might take him—if he was lucky—twenty years.

Macron entered the Élysée in May, 2017. A month later, L.R.E.M. secured an outright majority in the National Assembly. The Party had been careful to cultivate candidates who would deliver on Macron’s promise to open up French politics. Forty-seven per cent of L.R.E.M. and its allies’ new deputies were women; twenty-eight of them were under thirty years old; and twenty-three, according to a count by France 24, came from ethnic minorities. Many were from civil society, overwhelmingly from white-collar professions.

The unlikeliness of Macron’s rise to power has made his exercise of it more fraught. “I’m the fruit of a brutal form of history, of a breaking-and-entering,” Macron told French reporters in 2018, acknowledging the provisional air that hangs over his Presidency. If it succeeds, it could be the beginning of a renewal of French democracy; if it fails, it will have been an interregnum before the era of Le Pen and her brand of far-right populism. The European elections in May served as a sort of midterm checkup. “On the national level, this is the confirmation of 2017,” Macron told me. “A lot of politicians thought that 2017 was an exception, or something like an aberration. This is no longer the case.”

Macron conceives of himself as an unusually strong executive in a system that lends itself to strong executives. Early on, he explained that he saw the office as Jupiterian—necessitating a supremely confident style of decision-making at a dignified remove, in imitation of the Roman god. He pitched this as a historical imperative, saying that it spoke to the French people’s nostalgia for the monarchy, but it was also a compensatory maneuver: a young politician’s version of saying, “I’m your parent, not your friend.” Macron took the imperious act a bit far—for example, dressing down the head of the French military in front of his troops (“I am your boss”), leading the man to quit. (The first rule of bossifying is that if you have to tell someone you’re his boss you’ve already lost your authority.) When I asked Benjamin Griveaux, the government’s chief spokesperson (he has since left to run for mayor of Paris), about Macron’s reputation for arrogance, he answered bluntly: “I mean, the guy is forty years old, he’s President, he’s smart, he’s probably good-looking. What do you want?”

In keeping with the kingly style, Macron shunned unions, the civil service, and the regional and local authorities who have generally served an intercessory role in French life. Except Macron, every French President since 1974 has served as a mayor before taking office; it’s said to be the best training ground for learning how France really works. The mayors of France, then, were not pleased when Macron appeared before them and gave what some of them saw as a dismissive speech. “The President kept saying that we were too numerous, incompetent, archaic, clientelist,” André Laignel, the vice-president of the Association of Mayors of France, told me. “I suppose the intoxication of victory altered his judgment.”

Candor is a foundation of Macronism. At the Élysée, I was surprised by Macron’s willingness to genuinely engage with my questions, rather than use them as prompts for prefab spiels. But the things he says, even when they’re true, can be hurtful. Last summer, a shaggy-haired teen-ager greeted him with an admittedly rude “How’s it going, Manu?” Macron wagged a finger, upbraided the teen (“No, no, no, no, no. . . . You call me Monsieur President of the Republic, or Monsieur. O.K.?”), and told him that he’d better get a high-school diploma and be able to feed himself before he started calling for a revolution. Then Macron posted the exchange on Twitter. This is not a great look, particularly when the populist’s most effective tool is rage against a condescending élite. Xavier Bertrand, the president of the Hauts-de-France region, told me, “When you’re elected against the Front National, you should seek to unify the people and govern for everyone—those who voted for you, those who didn’t vote for you, and those who didn’t vote at all.”

A young French journalist I know remarked that “the way Macron chews his words” reminded her of Mr. Darcy as played by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice.” She said, “He’s called arrogant by people because they don’t understand his brutal way of saying things.” Last year, when an unemployed man in his mid-twenties complained to Macron that he couldn’t find a job, Macron replied, “I’ll cross the street and find one,” launching into a list of sectors that were hiring, including hotels, cafés, and restaurants. Macron clearly meant the speech to be motivating. It didn’t seem to occur to him that the man, who had trained as a horticulturalist, might not want to work in a hotel. Or that being goaded by the President could be humiliating. Living for action, Macron doesn’t always know when to stop.

One thing on which Macron’s supporters and detractors agree is that many of his problems stem from his decision to reform the I.S.F., a wealth tax created during the Mitterrand years and annulled and reinstated by various governments. Most recently levied at between 0.5 and 1.5 per cent on portions of fortunes above €1.3 million, it was a totemic tax, as the left-wing newspaper Libération put it, that never raised a huge amount of revenue. (It had a ceiling, and, over the years, exempted such holdings as art, zoological specimens, and brandy.) Macron felt that the I.S.F. was counterproductive, a position that many economists share. “Progressively abolished in all E.U. countries, the I.S.F. persists in France and leads hundreds of taxpayers to expatriate each year,” his campaign manifesto declared.

A number of Macron’s advisers warned him to proceed with caution around the I.S.F. But Macron, true to his word, abolished it. He replaced it with a lower tax on high-value real estate, but, in the public understanding, the I.S.F. was gone and, with it, an important commitment to solidarity. In the name of economic efficiency, Macron had committed a political mistake, the “original sin,” according to many observers, of his Presidency. “We may have underestimated the weight of symbols in politics,” Marc Ferracci, one of his economic advisers, told me.

Macron was also tinkering with payroll taxes, making adjustments that, he said, would profit workers. According to calculations by the Institut des Politiques Publiques, a majority of workers benefitted from Macron’s reforms, but the bottom fifth of households suffered somewhat, and the highest earners benefitted the most. The changes were particularly painful for retirees with modest pensions. Soon, Macron had a new nickname: the President of the rich.

Money, for Macron, was something to move around on a spreadsheet. He didn’t seem to care that his decisions caused serious problems for some people in limited circumstances, or to understand that money had a powerful emotional charge. In April, he admitted to reporters that he initially took the retirees’ complaints as whining. “There was a moment where I believed that their protestations weren’t entirely legitimate,” he said. “It’s a few euros a month.”

Some of Macron’s policies have addressed people of lesser means. Under his health plan, eyeglasses, hearing aids, and dental services will be free by 2021. People all along the political spectrum speak highly of his decision to halve the size of elementary-school classes in disadvantaged zones, from twenty-four students to twelve. As part of an anti-poverty plan, he has proposed a welfare reform that will raise benefits and extend them to a million more households, depositing them automatically in recipients’ bank accounts. France is less unequal than countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, but income inequality is widening. Louis Maurin, of the Observatory of Inequalities, a think tank, applauded Macron’s measures for the elderly and the handicapped, but criticized his paltry support for young people, single mothers, and the unemployed. “Macron has increased inequality, but not more than other Presidents,” he told me.

At times, it can feel like a group of extremely smart and annoying interns is running the country—l’État, c’est moi and some guys I met in college. They talk about “disruption” and boast about their proximity to businesspeople and blame their failures on “last-mile delivery.” Gérard Araud, the former Ambassador to the United States, said, “You have a lot of people between twenty and forty who have never been elected, basically having a computer as part of their personality.” The Élysée Web site has sprouted a boutique, offering shockingly expensive T-shirts emblazoned with obscure vocabulary words that Macron is fond of using, such as “croquignolesque” (ridiculous) and “poudre de perlimpinpin” (snake oil). “The vision of the world expressed in his program illustrates an upper-middle-class ethnocentrism that sometimes borders on naïveté,” the historian Gérard Noiriel told Le Monde.

Macron’s “at the same time” refrain implied that he would practice economic liberalism and social liberalism simultaneously, but he has actually pursued them consecutively: two years of budget-trimming leek soup followed, now, by the promise of a social-justice crème brûlée. Unemployment is down and the economy is adding jobs. A recent poll showed that a majority of voters associate Macron with the center-right. When I asked him whether he had overestimated people’s forbearance, he defended the “front-loading” of economic reforms but admitted to a “desynchronization” problem. One explanation for the success of Donald Trump, he said, is that Trump made his policies easily comprehensible. “I think that one of the mistakes or the weaknesses of progressive leaders is to make smart reforms with long-term impact and low visibility for people,” he said. “The crisis we have in a lot of democracies is a lack of efficiency.”

The gilets jaunes protests began on November 17th, putatively because of an increase in fuel taxes that the government had introduced to help curb carbon emissions. Didn’t this disproportionately burden people in already underserved rural communities? the gilets jaunes asked. Why don’t you tax airplanes? They were using a very concrete instance of Paris-centric policymaking to talk about the abstract feeling of being left out of democratic decision-making.

The gilets jaunes have come to represent a blazing, unfocussed rebuke of the inequalities created by the political class’s negligent stewardship of globalization. A relatively small movement, they initially enjoyed overwhelming support. They have no formal leader, although social media gives the movement structure, and algorithms intensify their grievances (even if, in France’s rural zones, it takes more than ten seconds to load fifty-five per cent of Web pages). The gilets jaunes are disrupters as much as Macron, at whom they direct intense personal hatred.

Macron has said that he didn’t see the gilets jaunes coming, but the roots of their dissatisfaction go back to at least 2005. In a referendum that year, French voters rejected a proposed European constitution, which French leaders repackaged and ratified anyway. Then came the 2008 financial crisis, bringing recession, unemployment, and a growing sense that ordinary people were suffering the consequences of terrible decisions made by leaders who were beyond accountability. This winter, an anti-Macron manifesto, “This Country That You Don’t Know,” by the filmmaker and far-left legislator François Ruffin, became a best-seller. “You are the product of social segregation, outside of the people, far from the people, and now against the people,” Ruffin writes, addressing Macron.

The demographer Hervé Le Bras has shown that the gilets jaunes don’t match up with any previous political constituency, either ideologically or geographically. Theirs is a contradictory movement: although some exurban participants want lower taxes, some rural ones want more services. Their activity has been particularly robust in France’s “empty diagonal,” a band of low-density settlement that stretches from the Massif Central, in the south, to Lorraine, in the northeast. It’s a movement of workers, but it’s not a labor movement. As the historian Mathilde Larrère has observed, it’s essentially a revolt of consumers. The gilets jaunes are both representing and critiquing the world of parking lots and superstores that Macron’s patron Henry Hermand did so much to create.

On a blustery Wednesday in May, I took a train to Langon, a small town about thirty miles from Bordeaux. It was a holiday, and Langon was silent: I peeked into a pretty church that hugged the left bank of the Garonne River and read the notices in the window of the local newspaper, learning about regulations for the sale of doves. Then I crossed the Garonne and walked a mile or so toward Saint-Macaire, a community of about two thousand people, where the average salary is €26,830 a year, almost exactly the national average. The gilets jaunes had been evicted from a roundabout, but it was easy to figure out where to find them. A trio of mannequins, dressed in yellow vests (“Macron, you’re screwed”) and waving a tricolor, beckoned visitors to a nearby plot of land that had been lent to the group by an anonymous supporter.

Since the middle of March, the gilets jaunes had been running a “citizen market,” which, according to the newspaper Sud-Ouest, was turning out to be “a huge success.” The idea was to eat local, at a lower price. I had come to Saint-Macaire because the street protests were losing momentum, and I wanted to see what might come next. Venders were selling rhubarb, strawberries, honey, watercress, and foie gras. On a makeshift terrace, people sat around cable spools that had been transformed into tables, watching as dogs chased a horse-drawn carriage filled with delighted children. A glass of Bordeaux cost a euro and a half. The gilets jaunes are a rejoinder to capitalism’s emotional ravages as much as to its economic ones. The market was obviously intended to foster social exchange. “It’s about life together,” Guillaume Morizet, one of the market’s organizers, told me. (He later confessed that this wasn’t his real last name.) An I.T. technician named Eric Etienne added, “We want to renew the solidarity that’s in the process of disappearing.”

Guillaume is living part time with seven other gilets jaunes, including his brother Nicolas, in a clubhouse that they built on the site. “Our mom brings food to the clubhouse—huge plates for everybody,” Nicolas said. The brothers, who are in their thirties, both have good jobs. Guillaume is a manager at a construction company, and Nicolas makes two thousand euros a month as a truck driver. They weren’t really there for fuel taxes. “That was just the spark that lit the whole fuse,” Nicolas said. They wanted to talk about referenda and citizens’ assemblies. “We want more freedom, more of a say in things. One feels herded, obliged to live their way,” he added. When I asked each of them, separately, about Macron, they responded the same way: “A pawn.”

I followed Nicolas to the clubhouse. “Turn Off the TV,” a sign read. “For a More Humanist World, Revolt!” Volunteers had scavenged the wood to build the house and had painted murals on the outer walls. One of them featured a crowd of gilets jaunes in front of Notre-Dame.

“I was right next to the kid who lost a hand,” Nicolas said. I asked how he felt about the violence of the movement. “We should be much more violent, in my eyes, for a real revolution,” he responded.

The L.R.E.M. politicians I talked to had a narrative about the gilets jaunes: their numbers are low, and the movement is an outgrowth of problems that began long before Macron. Like Macron, they were careful to distinguish between regular demonstrators and the casseurs (hooligans) and black blocs (far-left extremists) who, they say, have hijacked the movement and caused much of the violence. This is politically convenient, because they can show empathy for the gilets jaunes while delegitimizing their marches. I asked Nicolas about the makeup of the yellow vests, expecting him to insist that fringe hangers-on had given the group a bad name.

“Today, I’m a gilet jaune,” he said, slyly. “Tomorrow, I’m a black bloc.”

We went inside, passing through a set of saloon doors, and Nicolas showed me the bedrooms (“We have two rooms for couples,” he said), the living room (floral sheets tented the ceiling), the meeting room (T-shaped table, dry-erase board). There was a kettle on the stove, and someone had filled a vase with lily of the valley, the workers’ flower. A current of imagination electrifies the movement, from the often very funny drawings and slogans that adorn the back of participants’ vests to the construction of elaborate forts. According to a chalkboard on the wall, the gilets jaunes of Saint-Macaire had a thousand and forty euros and eighty-eight centimes to their name. Nicolas said, “We never do things halfway.”

When I went back outside, I started talking to a man in a baseball cap. “We pay too many taxes,” he said. “There’s a charge for everything.” He claimed that the damage at the demonstrations had actually been caused by people who were hired by the government. When he got out his phone and started flicking through anti-Semitic memes, I walked away.

Macron’s first response to the gilets jaunes was not to really have one. His instinct, perhaps biographically informed, was just to plow through, meeting insult with impassivity. But, in early December, he froze the fuel tax. This was a major concession, as Macron, having witnessed the indiscipline of the Hollande years, has long promised to govern with unblinking “constancy and coherence.” The gilets jaunes, with no intermediaries, had made him budge. Then, after they ransacked the Champs-Élysées, he gave a live televised address. That summer, he had weathered l’affaire Benalla—a sordid and still unsettled scandal involving his personal bodyguard—but, for the first time, he looked racked. The papers were full of reports that he wasn’t holding up well, that he wouldn’t go outside without makeup, even on his hands. For someone who prides himself on “being able to name things,” he was curiously prudish. Admitting that the country was in “a state of economic and social emergency,” he announced a budget-blowing ten-billion-euro package of conciliatory measures, including an increase in the monthly minimum wage, all without uttering the words “gilets jaunes.”

The Saturday melees continued. Since the death of a French-Algerian student at the hands of police during a demonstration in 1986, the “doctrine of the maintenance of order” has instructed French police to engage in direct contact with protesters only as a last resort. In early December, Christophe Castaner, the minister of the interior, announced that he was going to “revisit” the doctrine. The police have used grenades and Flash-Balls; the Assembly passed an emergency “anti-hooligan” law that human-rights groups criticized for restricting civil liberties. That month, Zineb Redouane, an eighty-year-old woman, was severely injured in her Marseilles apartment. She was trying to close the shutters during a gilets jaunes demonstration when a tear-gas grenade came through the window and blew up in her face. Redouane was taken to a local hospital, where she died. “Now white people in France are finding out about police brutality,” Widad Kefti, a journalist who has covered police misconduct in the Paris suburbs, told me.

On a sunny Saturday morning in March, Geneviève Legay put on her yellow vest, grabbed a rainbow flag (“PEACE,” it read, in big white letters), and went to demonstrate in Nice with the gilets jaunes. Legay, who has three daughters and five grandchildren, spent years as a stay-at-home mother before going back to work in her forties. She had once been a bookkeeper, but she had trouble finding work, so she took a job as a cook in a home for children. “Very quickly, the field of specialized education got me in the guts, and I earned my high-school diploma at the age of forty-three,” she told me. At seventy-three, she has spent decades campaigning for environmental and social causes. (“End of the world, end of the month, same fight,” she said.)

In response to chaos at the previous week’s protests, the prefecture had barred demonstrators from certain areas of downtown Nice. They went there anyway. During a charge, a policeman knocked Legay down. (She has filed a complaint against the police for “willful violence.”) She lay on the sidewalk, bleeding from the head, her rainbow flag wrapped around a metal bollard. Eventually, she was taken to the hospital, where she was put in intensive care with a life-threatening skull fracture. Asked about her case, Macron told the newspaper Nice-Matin that he wished her “a prompt recuperation and perhaps a form of good sense.”(One woman showed up to a rally in support of Legay in a yellow vest bearing the message “I’m seventy-one years old, and I demonstrate, and it’s not over! Young asshole!”)

Legay had just been discharged from the hospital when I wrote to her in mid-March. “I expected nothing of Macron, but I would have wished for more self-control on his part, and that he wait for the truth before speaking,” she said, in an e-mail, adding that she was very tired and was having a hard time sitting in front of the computer.

At the Élysée, I asked Macron what he was thinking when he made the remark. “We have a free press, free movement, free social media. Everything can be said. But going in a place where it was forbidden to demonstrate was totally crazy,” he said. “So common sense is welcome, especially in this rough time!”

“But you have an old lady in the hospital,” I replied.

“And I wish the best for her, but my point was to say, O.K., this old lady was not going to the shop. She was demonstrating with activists, going to, honestly, policemen at the worst moment of the crisis.”

“What is very challenging is that a lot of people are upset with the violence, which could be synonymous with a sort of laxity,” he continued. “And, on the other hand, people are upset by all these injuries and so on, the synonym of authoritarianism.”

Ever the transgressive, Macron came up with a surprising plan to quell the crisis. In January, he launched le grand débat national (the great national debate), in which he would spend two months going around the country, listening to people’s frustrations. In an open letter, he wrote, “For me, there are no forbidden questions. We will not agree on everything, that’s normal, it’s democracy. But at least we will show that we are a people who are not afraid to speak, to exchange, to debate.” The public could send in comments online, or write them in cahiers de doléances—grievance books, inspired by ones used during the Revolution. The head of a national commission charged with insuring the fairness of public debates refused to back the initiative, calling it “a P.R. operation.” But there was something appealing in the nerviness of the proposition, in Macron’s willingness to gamble that he could win back a hostile public. “I think if leaders don’t expose themselves, and decide not to be committed and to go to the ground, then you leave the floor to the extremes,” he told me. “So I had no choice—this is my deep conviction—but to go on the front row and try to deal with what was happening.”

The grand débat was basically a public-humiliation tour. Macron was forced to ask the local officials he’d previously brushed off to put town halls at his disposal. He had to tacitly admit that the old world he’d tried to destroy wasn’t entirely gone; he had to acknowledge, in an up-close-and-personal forum, that he’d been too distant. A mayor would get up and start talking about gardening, as one did at a debate that I attended in a hilltop village in Corsica, and Macron would have to stand there and take it. “Questioned by sheep farmers, who are populous in the region, the President also announced that the percentage of wolves that could be slaughtered would be increased, since the threshold of five hundred had been reached,” Le Monde reported, after a debate that Macron held in Gréoux-les-Bains, a Provençal village. Whether their questions were adversarial, boot-licking, or just plain weird, people wasted the President’s time because they could. It was the revenge of the system.

Macron, however, revelled in the back-and-forth. He stood there in his shirtsleeves, outlasting everyone with an impressive mastery of the most esoteric issues. At an evening debate with sixty of France’s leading intellectuals and scientists, broadcast live on the radio, Macron kept going until 2:30 A.M., long after the departure of most of the spectators and some of the participants. Throughout the grand débat, he was loose and charming, maintaining a sense of humor even when challenged. “Sometimes we have the tendency to say that it’s the person at the top who’s responsible for everything,” he said, in Corsica, when an audience member accused him of being disconnected. “But I’ll take it, I’ll take it!” Everyone laughed. By the end of the tour, according to an official count, almost two million people had participated online; more than sixteen thousand grievance books were compiled, twenty-seven thousand letters and e-mails were written, and more than ten thousand meetings were held. Macron spent a total of ninety-two hours on the debate floor. By April, his popularity had rebounded to around thirty per cent, from a low of twenty-three in December—not good, but not nearly as bad as his predecessor’s at the same point in his tenure.

In April, Macron presented his conclusions from the grand débat. The French people, he said, had expressed “a profound sense of injustice: fiscal injustice, geographic injustice, social injustice.” (Interestingly, immigration wasn’t anywhere near the most pressing of their concerns.) He announced a second round of conciliatory measures, including more tax cuts. Sounding less like Jupiter and more like a chastened character from a children’s book, he said that he would no longer seek “to do everything, all by myself.” The debate hadn’t changed him enough for him to cave on the I.S.F., but he promised “to put man at the heart of our project more than we’ve done.” Was man not there before? I asked Macron. “Not sufficiently,” he replied. “I think it was, for me, a progressive approach and a progressive movement, but it was probably too abstract.” His priority now was to deliver concrete responses to people’s day-to-day anxieties. “If I’m not efficient with my middle classes, people will get rid of me,” he said, implying that he would run again in 2022. “This is democracy.”

“I hate solutions without problems,” Macron told me at the Élysée. The remark—a little bit corporate, a little bit profound—brought home for me the pragmatic, post-ideological bent of his politics. What is Macronism? It’s a form of machine learning, in which Macron and his apparatus try to perform the task of reforming France without having been pre-programmed. As Macron’s former advisers Ismaël Emelien and David Amiel recently wrote, the strategy is to “identify the causes of the populist vote and respond methodically. If we succeed, we will dry it up.” When the input changes, so do the conclusions, but only to the precise degree that they need to.

Abroad, however, Macron is attempting to lead with ideas: multilateralism, moderation, and coöperation. As the world realigns along the axes of globalism and nationalism, he has burnished France’s reputation as a diplomatic player that can wield more power than it might actually possess, by drawing on a heritage of principled intervention. As he is fond of putting it, “France is back.” Angela Merkel’s grip on Europe has weakened as she’s entered the final phase of her administration; the U.K. is bogged down in internal chaos. This leaves Macron, for now, as the most influential head of state in the European Union, an institution that he is passionately committed to reinvigorating, both for high-minded reasons (peace on the Continent) and strategic ones (a strong E.U. is France’s best hope against the U.S. and China). “There is a need for France to be that moralizing voice, even if Macron is sometimes screaming into the void,” Célia Belin, of the Brookings Institution, told me. “If you don’t have a France that annoys the U.S. on Iraq, that disagrees on Iran, that pushed for the Paris climate accords, no one else will do it.”

After seventy-five years of relative consensus, European and American strategic priorities are diverging. This puts Macron at an awkward, if opportune, angle to Trump. The two leaders are opposed on almost every major issue. At their first meeting, in 2017, Macron offered Trump a hand to shake and then matched him pull for pull in an excruciating tug-of-war, determined not to be out-alphaed. Almost immediately, Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. A week later, Macron invited Trump to Paris, putting together a welcome that so flattered Trump’s every baronial taste (steak, ice cream, a military parade) that he almost seemed to be trolling him.

In April, 2018, Macron went to Washington, D.C., and tried to persuade Trump not to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal. Trump did it anyway, making it clear that Macron had overestimated his magnetism, that “France Is Back” was no match for “America First.” (An oak tree that they planted together on the White House lawn recently died.) That fall, Trump arrived in Paris for the centennial of the First World War Armistice. At a ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe, Macron made a speech warning against nationalism, which Trump evidently took as a personal attack rather than as exactly the sort of thing a European leader would say to commemorate the end of a war in which nationalism killed about fifteen million people. A few weeks later, Trump began tweeting about the gilets jaunes, claiming that protesters were chanting “We want Trump!” “The tweets were a little bit surreal,” Lechevallier, Macron’s foreign-policy adviser, told me. “That was the drop that overflowed the vase.”

The French continue to regard America as a partner, but not a partner like other partners. “It’s like you have two baskets, and one is the way you deal with President Trump,” Lechevallier observed. When I suggested that Trump was unpredictable, Lechevallier pointed out that, in fact, Trump had announced his decisions on the climate accord, Iran, and withdrawing troops from Syria well in advance. The trickier issue was a lack of coördination between Trump and his own Administration. He said, “We don’t know if our interlocutors know exactly what the Presidential opinion is on a topic, and we don’t know if they will be able to implement the decisions made by the President.”

At the Élysée, a Louis XIV clock emitted a dinging noise so crisp it sounded like a text notification. When I prepared to leave, Macron offered to keep talking. “Yeah, yeah, I’m coming,” he said, at one point, to someone summoning him from another room. For a second, he sounded like a regular forty-one-year-old French guy running late for an appointment, juggling an overloaded schedule along with the world’s woes. What I really wanted to know was how we had got here, and why no one seemed able to get us out—perhaps less as a journalist than as a French and American citizen living in 2019, thirty years after the so-called end of history, watching hate and waters rise. As we talked, Macron quoted the statesman Léon Blum, who said, at the dawn of the Second World War, that the French had suffered from “a dissolution of spirits,” a crisis of faith in democracy and its institutions. Macron said, “I mean, when people totally lose their references and confuse everything, it’s so easy.”

“I know, but you can’t really blame them when people like Trump are tweeting fake videos,” I said.

“But he was elected by you!” Macron said, his voice rising.

We went back and forth—me trying to get him to take a stronger stance against a broken system and its manipulators, him agreeing that the system was broken but saying that it wasn’t his role to condemn the people who had demolished it. Finally, I tried to frame the question more positively, asking what he had to say to progressive people around the world. He leaned in and spoke with fire in his voice. “I think today we are at a very critical moment,” he said. “We have to accelerate a lot of our transformations, and we are challenged by what people are living through in day-to-day life. I think we have a duty not to abandon any of our idealism but to be as pragmatic as the extremists are. This is a battle. And, even if you die with good principles, you die.” ♦



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