Macron’s Balancing Act: Winning Respect for Office Without Seeming Distant

  • Macron must decide on whether to be hands-on or more distant
  • France’s next president is steeped in history and literature

Emmanuel Macron has many challenges awaiting him when he becomes president of France. But one of the most difficult will be winning back popular respect for the office he’ll soon inhabit, while convincing skeptical voters that he’s not a distant elitist. 

In a country where the presidency and its trappings carry some of the aura of the kings and emperors of the past, how Macron handles that balancing act may determine his success or failure. The high-school actor is steeped in French history and literature and rehearses his major speeches with his wife, a former drama teacher. The recent past also offers options for how to handle his new job, from the aloof style of Francois Mitterrand to the hyperactive omnipresence of Nicolas Sarkozy. 

French Election: Full Coverage

Emmanuel Macron on May 7.

Photographer: Christophe Morin/Bloomberg

The early indications from Macron’s team are that his style will be closer to a chairman rather than a hands-on chief executive.

“Our view is that the president is there to take long-term views and directions,” said Benjamin Griveaux, an aide on the campaign team. “A president doesn’t have to comment on every scrap of daily news, and he’s not the one who decides how a ministry should cut its budget.”

President Bling Bling

Despite his 30-point victory, Macron is taking the helm of a divided country and faces widespread skepticism about whether he’s genuinely committed to helping those who’ve lost out in modern France. As he sets out to persuade his country otherwise, the decisions made by his predecessors illustrate the range of models Macron can choose from -- and serve to illustrate their pitfalls.

The hyper-active Sarkozy looked to modernize the French presidency after his victory in 2007, borrowing from the faster, more personality-focused U.S. political news cycle. But Sarkozy’s taste for foreign holidays, his meddling in his ministers’ departments and a penchant for showbiz glitz came to irritate voters and earned him the nickname “President Bling-Bling.” He was the first one-term president in a quarter of a century.

The Socialist Francois Mitterrand, France’s longest-serving modern president, held power between 1981 and 1995 taking the opposite approach to Sarkozy. Mitterrand often acted as if the usual rules didn’t apply to him, refusing for many years to tell the public that he had cancer. He restricted his public appearances so much that he became known as “The Sphinx.”

The travails of President Francois Hollande also show how the visual image can make -- or undo - a modern president. He came to power pledging to be a “normal” guy, but his image never quite recovered from his Inauguration Day when he was soaked in a downpour in an open-topped car on the Champs Elysees. Nor did he ever shake off his moniker of “Flanby,” the name of a wobbly Nestle caramel pudding.

“Macron doesn’t want to be a hyper-president like Sarkozy or a ‘normal’ president like Hollande,” said Jean Guarrigues, professor of political history at the Sciences Po institute in Paris. “He wants to be a president who sets the broad guidelines but doesn’t get involved in day-to-day governing. He wants to give back to the presidency a degree of majesty after Sarkozy and Hollande.”

Mitterrand Model

The new president has said repeatedly that the head of state’s role is “to preside not govern.” He argues that ministers should be left alone to meet the targets set for them, though they’ll be held to account if they fail -- he himself served as a minister under Hollande. Le Monde newspaper calls this concept of the presidency “Jupiterian,” a reference to the king of the gods in Roman mythology.

Whether he can resist the temptation to meddle once voters start blaming him for his government’s missteps is another question.

“I don’t buy the idea that he won’t want to get his hands dirty,” said Anne Fulda, author of a biography of Macron published last month. “He worked hard on his dossiers as a minister, and many presidents get involved in everything.”

Macron’s biggest mistake of the election race also highlighted the different set of standards a modern president faces compared with someone like Mitterrand.

After victory in the first round on April 23 he took campaign staffers for dinner at a brasserie in downtown Paris. Such a move might be the mark of a good boss in normal circumstances, but for the president-in-waiting of an angry, divided country, it was a mistake to allow the public to peek behind the scenes.

Get McDonald’s?

Le Pen’s team pounced on it as a sign of the complacency and entitlement of Macron and his team, even as the candidate and his advisers struggled to understand what was happening. In a heated confrontation with reporters outside the restaurant, Macron argued that it was perfectly legitimate to take his crew out to dinner.

“What should we have done? Get McDonald’s and stay in the campaign HQ?” Aurore Berger, a member of the Macron team, said the following day.

The dinner was in fact a low-key affair with no grandstanding speeches and Macron had already cautioned his team about the risks of complacency earlier in the night, according to Patrick Toulmet, a senior campaign adviser who was with the candidate throughout the night.

Still, that rare slip in the Macron choreography highlights one of the central challenges for the new president: With his elite education and background as an investment banker, the millions who gave Marine Le Pen the National Front’s largest ever vote on Sunday simply don’t trust him.

Global Elite

That impression is compounded by the supporting cast of modern, young, white men he’s assembled around him. They come from the same elite schools the president attended, they wear the same slacks and speak the same, accented, international English.

“You get the impression the whole team has been chosen in a movie casting,” Toulmet says. “They’re all good-looking. But that’s not France.”

Toulmet, 62 and wheelchair bound since suffering polio in childhood, is one obvious exception and he argues that both the monotone inner circle and the first-round dinner give a false idea of the new president. To illustrate his point, he tells a story from November 2016.

As his candidacy gathered momentum, Macron wanted to find out more about autism and Toulmet arranged for him to visit a residential home north of Paris where his brother Jean-Francois, an autism sufferer, had lived until his death five years earlier.

Away from the cameras, Macron and Brigitte spent more than three hours meeting the staff and the residents. The emotional reality of the condition was brought home to them when one of the residents recognized Toulmet. She had been close to Jean-Francois and unexpectedly seeing his brother suddenly unlocked her grief in an uncontrollable fit of weeping.

“Emmanuel was moved,” Toulmet says. “His eyes were full of tears.”

Macron’s aides say the president’s feeling for those who’ve lost out in contemporary France is just as genuine. Now they have to convince the rest of the country.

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