At age 39, Emmanuel Macron is set to become France’s youngest president as well as the youngest head of any democratic state. On Sunday, Macron won decisively against his Far-Right opponent, Marine Le Pen, after a year-long campaign that has left France deeply divided.
If Macron’s youth embodies a generational shift in French politics, the rest of his résumé tells a different story. Born in the provincial town of Amiens in 1977 in a family of doctors, Emmanuel Macron spent a quiet and conventional bourgeois childhood and adolescence, attending Jesuit institutions. At age 18, he moved to Paris to attend Lycée Henry IV, the country’s most prestigious preparatory school and an ante-chamber to France’s halls of powers and literary pantheon since 1796 (writer Guy de Maupassant, and the philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault and Simone Weil are just a few of its alumni). After graduation, Macron checked all the boxes of the French republican elite that sociologist Pierre Bourdieu denounced in The State Nobility: Elite Schools in the Field of Power – Sciences Po, National School of Administration – before joining public service in the National Audit Office at the age of 24.
Besides this conventional trajectory, the young Macron devoted his time to music, theatre, literature and philosophy, which he studied in parallel at the University of Nanterre in Paris. Before joining Sciences Po, he became the last assistant and protégé of French philosopher Paul Ricoeur.
Public service and public sector
After a four-year stint in civil service, Macron moved to the private sector, joining the Rothschild Bank to become an investment banker, 10 days before the collapse of Lehman Brothers in New York. At Rothschild, he swiftly climbed the corporate ladder to become an associate and director for financial operations. His contribution to the merger of a branch of pharmaceutical major Pfizer with the Nestlé group made him a millionaire. Four years later, he resumed his career in public service by joining President François Hollande’s office, as deputy chief of staff.
This sort of revolving door practice is common in France, where members of the state’s tiny administrative elite are prized targets for private sector headhunters. This system is also encouraged by the tight batch solidarity that binds them together. When Macron was appointed at the Elysée (the official residence of the president), he reconnected with 13 of his National School of Administration batchmates, all holding key cabinet positions across ministries.
As an economic adviser, Emmanuel Macron pushed for the transformation of some of the Left’s emblematic laws and policies. He criticised the law introducing the 35-hour work week, a major totem for French socialists. He also advocated against Hollande’s campaign promise to legislate against top corporate remunerations and bonuses. In June 2014, he quit the president’s office over a disagreement on the president’s pension reform plan, which he did not consider bold enough. Macron then headed for London, where he briefly taught at the London School of Economics.
In August 2014, Macron returned to Paris, having been appointed cabinet minister of economy and industry during Prime Minister Manuel Valls’ first cabinet reshuffle. His inclusion in the cabinet marked the liberal turn of the Hollande presidency, which was desperate to bring in any measure to revive a flaccid economy. As minister, Macron introduced a bill containing over 400 clauses aimed at “unlocking France’s economy”. The law is a hotchpotch of liberalisation measures, such as the opening of stores for up to 12 Sundays a year, the creation of international touristic zones where labour laws are relaxed, the liberalisation of the bus transport sector, as well as several reforms that made it easier for private companies to fire their employees. While the impact of the law on France’s economy is disputed, it was a clear gesture of rupture for a socialist government, and an acknowledgement that Hollande’s social democrat position was more geared towards the Right than the Left.
As a cabinet member, Macron continued to speak his mind and became overtly critical of the prime minister as well as the president. In April 2016, he founded his political movement, En Marche (Forward), in his home town of Amiens, making his intention to contest the 2017 presidential election clear. A period of tension ensued between the president, the prime minister and their junior cabinet member. Macron’s exit from the government soon became a matter of when, not if. He broke away from his political mentor in August, eight months ahead of the presidential election. In an off-the-record conversation, Hollande complained that his mentee had betrayed him “coldly” and “with method”.
Neither Left nor Right
How did this perfect product of elitism à la française come to embody the alternative to the system that spawned him? In various ways, Emmanuel Macron’s past and trajectory provide clues for understanding his political positioning.
His “neither Left nor Right” stance fits well with the image of a civil servant devoted to general interest and ready to offer his technocratic expertise to the government of the day. Recognised for his talents and expertise, Macron received job offers from both sides of the aisles, including one to join the cabinet of the then Prime Minister François Fillon (whom he defeated in the first round of the presidential election), which he declined.
Macron’s political grounding derives more from his study of philosophy than activism. Between 2006 and 2009, he was a card-holding member of the Socialist Party, where he served more in the capacity of a technocratic expert than as an activist. He refused to rejoin the party once he became a cabinet minister to preserve his autonomy and carve out a space for himself between France’s mainstream parties.
In a 2007 interview to the Sciences Po alumni magazine, Emile, Macron declared, “I am not an inheritor, I don’t belong to partisan politics.” Throughout his short political career, Macron took pride in his provincial origins, the fact that he had scaled the rungs of the French elite system by dint of hard work and merit. In the same interview, he declared that he would never apologise for being a “young white male with degrees, having passed through the republic’s competitive examinations that are open to all”.
Contrary to many of his peers, he refused to join a camp formally, thus keeping his options open, refusing to confine himself in any dogmatic or partisan straightjacket. His political vision is shaped by his strong and negative conception of individual liberty, defined as an absence of constraints. This is an oddity in France’s political culture, dominated by a discourse on collective values and solidarity.
The downside of this trans-partisan position is the risk of hollowness. Macron’s intellectual inclinations and edgeless figure are a little too subtle to make clear sense in a polity that has been structured along a Left-Right ideological divide since the Second World War. In this election, he has benefited from the fact that moderate voters could see in him whatever they wished to envision. But this is a shallow form of adhesion, which does not guarantee support once he actually starts making policy decisions.
Simple, yet complex
Much has been made about Macron’s youth and the symbol of change that it represents. While it is undeniable that it does bring a breath of fresh air in an otherwise ossified political environment, it is also partly misleading. Several portraits and biographies of Emmanuel Macron reveal that he spent most of his adolescence and early adult life in the company of elderly figures. Beyond his much-publicised marriage to his former school drama teacher, the young Macron spent more time discussing and debating with his professors than with his peers. While most Parisian students would spend their free time in all forms of leisure activities, Macron attached himself to an 80-year-old philosopher. Throughout his trail-blazing career, he constantly navigated around people of his parents’ generation, who included him in their circles on account of his brilliance and talents.
Emmanuel Macron offers a figure that is at once simple and complex. Simple for the conventionality of his personal trajectory, the embodiment of France’s elitism (he is the fourth French president to have graduated from Sciences Po). But complex as he developed the knack for doing what he was not expected to do and going where he was not expected to tread. Few bet that his movement, launched barely a year ago, would propel him to the presidency. Whether the personal qualities that he has displayed during the campaign and have helped him prevail over his opponents will help him to govern a people reputedly hard to please remains to be seen.
Gilles Verniers is assistant professor at Ashoka University and co-director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data. The views expressed are personal.