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Leading France at 39

May 7, 2017

Emmanuel Macron has won the Elysee Palace at just 39 years of age. That is a record. The clever banker's astonishing career has changed France's political system. Bernd Riegert reports from Paris.

Präsidentschaftswahl in Frankreich Emmanuel Macron
Image: picture alliance / Christophe Ena/AP/dpa

In the past, fellow students at France's elite university ENA described Emmanuel Macron as single-minded, and always a bit more mature than his age would lead one to believe. At 15 he met the love of his life, who happens to be 24 years older than he is. By 27 he had earned two degrees and had a good job in public finance management. At 29 he married his former Latin teacher. At 31 he was working at the renowned bank, Rothschild. And by the time he was in his mid-30s he had become a partner there and made millions. A truly brilliant career. He seems smart, but somehow a bit square. No escapades, total normalcy.

All the way to the top

Yet that was not enough for the young man from a good family. The philosophy and business administration graduate aspired to politics. The leftist presidential advisor Jacques Attali, a paternal patron, introduced Macron to Socialist party leaders and ultimately to Francois Hollande, who would later become the French president. Initially, Macron, a successful banker, became an economics advisor to Hollande. From 2014 to 2016 he served as the president's economics minister. Socialist party membership was little more than a formality, he never had to stand for election. To this day he has never held an elected position. He has very little traditional political experience.

Frankreich Präsidentschaftswahl 2017 | Emmanuel Macron & Ehefrau Brigitte Trogneux
France's new first lady, Brigitte Macron and her husband, President Emmanuel Macron.Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/C. Petit Tesson


In the summer of 2016, he preemptively resigned to avoid being fired by President Hollande after a fight within the administration. His patrons let him fall. Nevertheless, Macron was able to motivate people, to enthuse them. Just one year ago, he founded a movement, not a political party, that bears his initials: EM. "En Marche!" is not very specific, and really didn't stand for a clearly defined political program for quite some time. But the movement's more than 130,000 members campaigned for the young hopeful, and carried him all the way to the Elysee Palace in Paris.

Mr. Lucky

Emmanuel Macron has had a lot of luck in his dramatic career rise. He was disliked by many French citizens because the reform laws he pushed through as economics minister drew major resistance from leftist unions. It also became known that he owed money to the tax authorities. Slogans such as "France needs more young people that want to become millionaires," or "Those who work a lot can more easily afford a suit," did not always garner sympathy. The only reason that outsider Emmanuel Macron got the chance to advance to the runoff election, and eventually into the presidency, was because conservative presidential candidate Francois Fillon was tripped up by his own scandal, involving fake jobs doled out to relatives and paid for with taxpayer money. 

Faced with the choice between electing right-wing populist Marine Le Pen or him, many of Macron's former political opponents decided in the end to cast their ballots for him. Macron, who is photogenic, slender and always appears in dark suits, is the anti-Le Pen. France's tabloids and celebrity magazines love him. Photos of him feeding his wife Brigitte's grandson utterly enraptured readers.

Complete change

"This is a total generational change for France. The old guard is gone. Sarkozy, Juppe, Hollande: all gone. Suddenly there is an open field for someone very young," said the 92-year-old political scientist, Alfred Grosser, of Macron in a recent DW interview. For Grosser, Macron is the incarnation of the "Grand Coalition," a centrist who takes on ideas from the left, as well as the right. That is exactly what France's fractured society needs right now says Alfred Grosser, who has been analyzing French politics for years.

Deutschland Lit.Cologne - Alfred Grosser
Political scientist, Alfred Grosser.Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Vennenbernd

Attacks hurled at Macron during the campaign, often based on online rumors and fake news stories, failed to stick to the candidate. During one campaign event, Macron even used the rumor that he was actually gay and secretly living with the managing director of Radio France as an opportunity to poke fun at himself and at social media. Shortly thereafter, the French gay magazine "Garçon" (Boy) put Macron on its cover. It featured a photoshopped image of the candidate's head on a well-trained, shirtless torso, and the question of whether France's youngest president could also become the "President of Hearts."

Only Napoleon was younger

Emmanuel Macron describes himself as having remained modest and devoid of pretensions. He is committed to the European Union, wants good relations with Germany, wants open borders, thinks that refugees are "strong people" and is a proponent of globalism. He was the only candidate to make such statements during the campaign. Will he back those words with deeds now that he is in the Elysee Palace?

The French people are also curious about the woman at his side. Until now, they have been accustomed to affairs and presidential mistresses. Emmanuel and Brigitte seem like the perfect couple, without scandal. Macron's former drama teacher is still guiding him, now running his political theater troupe, and giving him stage directions. She was ever-present at campaign event rehearsals, instructing him on when to speak more loudly, or when to look left or right. Many Parisian newspapers are speculating that Brigitte will reinterpret the unofficial position of "First Lady." Emmanuel Macron is the youngest man to lead France since the French Revolution, with the exception of Napoleon. Although when Napoleon took power in 1804, at the age of 35, he did not become the president of France, but rather the emperor.


Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union