At home in the world
At 39, French President Emmanuel Macron is just getting started
By Vivienne Walt/Paris |Photograph by Nadav Kander for TIME
In December, if they accept the invitation of the President of France, leaders of 100 countries will descend on Paris to ramp up the global fight against climate change. But in a striking omission, one major name is not on the list: U.S. President Donald Trump. When TIME sat down with President Emmanuel Macron in the Élysée Palace on Nov. 7, he said the U.S. leader would not be among the guests at his Dec. 12 summit, “except if you get this big announcement coming from himself that he has decided to join the club.”
The “club,” of course, comprises every other country on the planet, now that even Syria has pledged to join the Paris Agreement on climate change, which was negotiated in the French capital in 2015 to drastically rein in carbon emissions and stave off disastrous global warming. Since Trump alone has rejected the agreement and vowed to cancel the U.S.’s climate commitments, much of the responsibility for leading this club has fallen to an erudite young Frenchman who has only just begun his career as an elected politician. Climate change is the most global of all the world’s problems, but it is hardly the only one: there are nuclear threats, far-right nationalism, jihadi terrorism and technological disruption. For all those, too, the French President is eager to discuss what his country can offer. And although he says he’s not seeking to become the leader of the free world, he can sound like he is.“Today, de facto, we are part of the global leadership on climate change,” he says, speaking in his excellent English, a very rare thing for French leaders. “I want us to be part of the global leadership on the economy and on finance, on the digital environment. I think we have a very important leadership to play on multilateralism.”
Six months to the day since Macron swept to power in the most astonishing election in modern France, he welcomed TIME to his office to weigh what his presidency might mean, not only for the 63 million people in France or even for the European Union’s 508 million, but around the world. It is a question worth pondering when the current U.S. President has retreated into “America first” policies, and Europe’s usual de facto leader, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is struggling to build a coalition after a disappointing election. Britain, meanwhile, is in shambles, muddling through its painful exit from the E.U.
Edging into the vacuum is Macron, 39, a passionate globalist deeply read in history and philosophy, whose victory formed a counternarrative to the assumption that, in the shadow of Brexit and Trump, the E.U. would fall to right-wing nationalists. But in a Europe where millions of people were killed in 20th century wars waged by authoritarian strongmen, assuming the leadership of more than one country remains a freighted proposition. “The classical French answer would be to say yes,” he says, when TIME asks him about his ambitions to lead the Continent. “But I think it would be a mistake … I don’t want to be the leader of Europe. I want to be one of the leaders, and this new generation of leaders, totally convinced that our future is a European future.”
The very fact that such a role is even possible for Macron was thought exceedingly unlikely just 18 months ago, when he was the Economy Minister with not much more than ambition to his name. Shockingly young in a land of gray-haired political grandees, Macron nonetheless rose to the top in less than a year. He quit the government in August and formed his own movement, En Marche! (On the Move), to replace President François Hollande, who declined to run again as his popularity flatlined. Macron campaigned on an ambitious message no French citizen had heard in generations: forging an entirely new system for a modern France.
A former investment banker, Macron argued that the country’s economic system—including heavy state regulation and watertight protection for labor—needed a radical overhaul. Sprung from the mobile Internet generation, he felt free to reject the orthodoxies of left and right. “I decided to react, to say the current organization of the political world is no more relevant,” he says. Nonetheless, millions of people responded to him. Macron surged ahead of the traditional socialist and conservative parties in the first round of voting in April, going on to defeat the far-right, anti-E.U. Marine Le Pen in a second round. “He was the new kid in town, bright and charming,” says Edouard Lecerf, deputy director general for the French consulting firm BVA. “From the beginning, it was a fairy tale.”
One part of that fairy tale was Macron’s personal life, which has drawn much attention. As a teenager, he fell in love with Brigitte, the (then married) drama coach at his high school, who is 24 years his senior. They married in 2007, after she had divorced her husband, with Macron thanking the guests at their wedding reception for supporting their “not completely normal” love match. Brigitte Macron, now 64, has seven grandchildren, a head-snapping version of the modern blended family.
Asked why he thinks the world is so fascinated with his marriage, Macron shifts on the couch and draws his legs close as he ventures into a more personal subject. “It is my life. That is it,” he says, his voice softening. “And I think that when you decide to run for such a campaign, you owe your people the truth.” In his relationship, he was guided by a principle he had set for himself at a tender age: to follow his own counsel, no matter what others believed. “I decided on my own what I considered fair, good and even when the current convention was not consistent with my choice,” he says of his marriage. “And I did the same in politics, and I still do the same.” Today a few photos of Brigitte sit on his desk. Nearby is only one other: France’s wartime hero General Charles de Gaulle. At one point Macron’s dog Nemo wandered in, for a pat from his master.
Macron’s ability to tune out other people’s judgments might have been useful in recent months. In stark contrast with his American counterpart, Macron himself does not use Twitter—“It’s not compatible with the kind of distance you need to govern,” he says pointedly. But were he on the site, he could scarcely have missed the outraged hashtags as demonstrators stormed the streets to protest his sweeping rewrite of French labor laws. In several polls, people have judged him as coming off as arrogant and too cozy with the rich. After five months in office, just 48% of those polled by Harris Interactive said they were satisfied with their new President. Macron, who has already rushed through several laws on labor, terrorism and taxes, shrugs at his falling numbers. “I was very popular at the beginning of my mandate, because I didn’t do anything for the first week after my election,” he says. “If you act, and it is because of your actions that you lose popularity, fine.”
While some remain unconvinced, to judge by the leaders drawn to the Élysée to meet Macron, there is a sense of something dynamic happening in France. It’s evident from the celebrities who have visited (Bono and Rihanna each made the trip) and from the buzz produced by constant motion.
In just the few days before he met with TIME, Macron weathered a blizzard of telephone diplomacy from his desk. With Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he discussed climate change and scheduled a presidential visit for early next year. Another call was with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom Macron had hosted in May in the sumptuous Versailles château. Back then, he stunned Putin by bluntly telling him in front of reporters that the state-funded Russian media had engaged in “false propaganda.” Russian meddling still poses a serious peril to democracies like the U.S. and France, he told TIME. “We should not underestimate the potential effects of such interference.”
Even so, Putin is now a man he can cut deals with. In his call with him on Nov. 3, he discussed opening humanitarian-aid corridors in Syria, an idea over which the Kremlin has long vacillated. The two also confirmed their commitment to the Iran nuclear deal, just days after Trump asked Congress to scrap U.S. support for it. And while TIME was at the Élysée, Macron’s aides were preparing for his departure the next morning to the United Arab Emirates, where he would meet leaders from the Gulf region and open an Abu Dhabi franchise of the Louvre Museum.
But it is Macron’s relationship with Trump that has proved the most complicated. At first glance, the two are a study in contrasts, in politics as well as style: the brash, antiglobalist septuagenarian set against the scholarly French globalist little more than half his age. And yet there are commonalities.
Both came out of the business world—Macron earned handsomely at a young age in four years at Rothschild—and both won shock victories as neophyte outsiders, trampling seasoned party politicians on the way. In the weeks leading up to the TIME interview, Macron’s top aides expressed concern that he might be portrayed as the anti-Trump—a characterization they find especially tricky. “We cannot do without the U.S.,” one of his close aides told me candidly, while another said that for Macron to try to convince Trump to change his mind on issues, “he needs a relationship of trust.” Macron says he himself does not believe he is the anti-Trump. “It doesn’t make sense. We are both duly elected by our voters,” he says. “I am not here to judge, to say I am the opponent to anybody.”
Even so, Macron barely conceals his annoyance at Trump’s decisions to pull the U.S. out of the climate agreement and to halt U.S. support for the Iran nuclear deal, which major world powers negotiated in 2015, to stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon. Macron says Trump appears to have no alternative suggestions to replace those pacts. “You cannot renegotiate with more than 180 or 190 countries,” he says about Trump’s withdrawal from the climate deal, and then speaks as though he is addressing Trump: “You disagree with that, but what’s your plan B? I don’t know your plan B.” He and Trump spoke by phone about Iran in October, with Macron arguing for Trump to keep supporting U.S. involvement in the deal or else see Iran sprint for a nuclear weapon. “I just said, ‘What is your other option? What do you want to propose?’ If you want to stop any relation with Iran regarding nuclear activity, you will create a new North Korea,” he says. “What’s your other option? To launch war, to attack Iran? It would be crazy.”
Neither Trump nor Macron got the partner they wanted in their respective elections. In the final days before the French election, former U.S. President Barack Obama uploaded a video endorsement for Macron, to his campaign’s delight. Trump, meanwhile, praised the tough anti-immigrant stance of Macron’s rival, National Front leader Le Pen. After that, their first meeting, in Brussels in May, was guaranteed to be tense. Macron gripped Trump’s palm in a prolonged handshake that went viral across the world.
Moments after Trump announced in June that he was withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, Macron gave a televised address in English, inviting U.S. climate scientists to move to France, where their work would be supported. He ended with a dig at Trump’s slogan, saying, “Make our planet great again.”
Yet Macron insists that he and Trump have a “strong relationship” on security, counterterrorism and defense. For months French jets have bombed ISIS positions as part of the U.S.-led military coalition. France’s military is in areas like Niger and Mali, where ISIS and al-Qaeda have taken hold. This is in keeping with the historic ties between the U.S. and France, Macron notes. “It’s much stronger and more important than the current Presidents, on both sides.”
The first signs of trust-building between the leaders came on July 14, Bastille Day, France’s biggest national holiday. Trump was Macron’s guest of honor, and the U.S. President was lavished with the best of Paris, a city Trump had said during his election campaign that “my friend Jim” would no longer visit. The visit included a full-scale military parade down the Champs-Élysées and dinner with the two Presidents’ wives atop the Eiffel Tower. At a joint press conference, Macron called Trump “dear Donald,” while Trump called the French leader “a great President.” And if, so far, Macron appears to have had little luck in convincing Trump to change his mind on key issues, he believes in keeping the door open to the possibility of welcoming back “the one who decided to leave the club,” he says. “I do believe that we have a very good personal relationship.”
And yet the battle of ideas between the two has only just begun. That was evident two months after Trump’s glittering visit to Paris. In mid-September both he and Macron made their debut appearances at the U.N. General Assembly. Trump told world leaders he would “always put America first” and that he wanted to see a “future where nations can be sovereign,” a sharp break from the U.N.’s mantra of global cooperation. Just two hours later Macron gave an impassioned defense of the multilateralism at the body’s core, arguing against every point Trump had made. He tells TIME he wanted to place France, as one of the U.N. Security Council’s five permanent members, in a leading role in the organization. “This country’s history is directly linked with multilateralism and the checks and balances of our global organization.”
Days later Macron delivered a much longer speech in Paris, giving a detailed blueprint for overhauling the entire E.U. in a live televised address. Macron’s aides insist that he did not intend to step into the role as Europe’s leader. Yet the timing led some to draw that conclusion: that same day, Merkel was locked in coalition talks in Berlin, after failing to win an outright majority in elections held just days before. Macron appeared to be striding into the breach.
The speech was classic Macron. Appealing to a grand narrative, he cut through the anxiety and shock over Brexit and the wave of anti-E.U. populist sentiment. He told Europeans, raised in comfortable democracies, that they were forgetting the horrors of the last century, when two world wars devastated the Continent and led to the formation of the E.U. Then he listed bold proposals for dramatically closer ties between the 27 E.U. countries after Britain leaves in 2019: a joint military force, an E.U. intelligence service, a Europe-wide asylum process for refugees and an E.U. financial transaction tax. “If you don’t put on the table a new ambition, you leave the floor to those who doubt Europe,” he says of his lofty proposals. “That’s how I defeated Marine Le Pen. And that’s why my strong recommendation to the others in Europe is to say, Don’t be shy. If you are shy about Europe, you will be killed by the extremes.”
To Macron, the project to unite Europe is proof that something positive can emerge from the darkest nationalist turmoil. “The whole story of Europe is about a series of wars, trying to dominate the others,” he says. Since the European Union, there has been “freedom and peace, allowing prosperity,” he says. To Macron, that notion seems deeply personal. Born into a generation that has always known a borderless E.U., his relative youth gives him a particular perspective. “Our generation will not have the luxury just to manage Europe,” he says. “We will have to refound it.”
For Macron to have a chance of remaking Europe—or, for that matter, to emerge as a new world leader—he will need to fix his own country. As he has begun to find his voice on global issues, so has he started an overhaul of France itself. Both, he says, are crucial, and closely interconnected. “France has a voice and a role to play,” he says. “But this role cannot be played, and your voice is not even listened to, if you don’t perform at home.”
So far, Macron’s plan to transform France has looked deceptively simple as he signs executive orders and as France’s economy experiences a noticeable uptick after years of near-stagnation—partly a factor of businesses’ optimism over Macron and of the world’s general economic rise. Even so, popular dissent has simmered over Macron’s first six months as he brings in what he calls a “profound transformation” in the “mind-set” of the French. In September tens of thousands of outraged Parisians marched against the centerpiece of Macron’s program: overhauling the watertight labor rights that have been in place for decades and which companies call a huge disincentive to hiring. “He is totally reversing social protections,” a far-left member of Parliament, Bastien Lachaud, said, standing amid the crowds. “He has to listen to protesters.”
But does he? Macron has no immediate need to compromise. His new political party, named La République En Marche!, won a large majority in parliamentary elections in June, ensuring that his executive orders find easy passage into law. The protests have had no discernible effect on Macron; one day after the Paris march, he signed the most far-reaching changes to French labor laws in decades, including one allowing companies to negotiate directly with employees rather than through labor unions, and drastically scaled back the country’s unwieldy labor code. “Everything will be in place by the end of the year,” he announced as he signed the new measures. Then he snapped the folder shut, as if to say, Case closed. Nobody should have been surprised by the speed of his actions, he now says. “I organized my campaign around these ideas. I didn’t take the country by surprise,” he says. “I delivered exactly the plan. That’s it.”
But not everyone in France cast their vote for Macron out of love for his platform. Many did so out of fear and disgust at Le Pen, whose nationalist platform included favoring France’s withdrawal from E.U., ditching the euro and virtually halting immigration. Even so, she won an impressive 10.6 million votes. And the far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon captured more than 7 million votes in the knockout round by campaigning for a 32-hour workweek and public retirement at 60. While Macron’s power at the moment appears unimpeachable, the map shows alienation across the struggling industrial areas of France’s northern rust belt, where towns have seen factories shuttered and jobs move to low-cost countries in Eastern Europe. Strong support exists there for the far right—a mirror image, perhaps, of Trump’s “forgotten” Americans. That is a sobering thought as the French President attempts to create millions of jobs. Yet Macron is optimistic, saying that with his changes, France could hugely benefit from the economic disruption. “We have everything to succeed in this new environment if we deliver in changing some of our rules,” he says. “Part of the political elites, unions, part of the economy were dead against this change. But people were waiting for that.”
It could take years before the world knows the full scope of Emmanuel Macron. If his ideas are proved wrong and his free-market style fails to bring France the economic revival he promises, the angry populism that stirred France earlier this year, and which led to Brexit, could return in force.
But if Macron is proved right, France could emerge as a far more important global power than it has been in decades. If he wins re-election in 2022, after his first five-year term as President, he would leave the Élysée Palace in 2027 at a sprightly 49 years of age—with plenty of time to form a radically different post-presidential role for himself. That is a long way in a future that remains shrouded in the mists. But if Macron pulls off his transformation at home, the ambitions he has to change the world—not just France—could be within reach. That club, after all, has an opening for a leader. •