Emmanuel Macron at a campaign event.

Photographer: Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg

Macron’s Ambition Vaults Palace Aide to the Brink of Presidency

Dismissed by analysts at the outset, Emmanuel Macron is now the front-runner to be France’s next president.

Emmanuel Macron thought his brush with politics was over.

After two years advising a struggling president, Francois Hollande, he was disillusioned with the political process. Itching to found a startup, he had business cards printed and said goodbye to his Elysee Palace colleagues over drinks. But life had other plans.

Six weeks later, the government was in crisis and Hollande asked his protege to come back as economy minister. Now, less than three years after he was thrust into center stage, the 39-year-old political rookie may be on the verge of becoming president.

Former president Francois Hollande speaks with Macron, then economy and industry minister, at the Elysee palace in Paris on July 31, 2015.
 Photographer: Alain Jocard/AFP via Getty Images

“I always had the feeling he was the one,” said Richard Ferrand, the first lawmaker to back Macron and now the head of his political movement.

If Macron’s ambition was palpable from the moment he appeared in the public eye, almost no one considered him a serious contender for this year. Last September, former Prime Minister Alain Juppe was still the favorite to reclaim the Elysee for the Republicans. And if Juppe didn’t make it, former President Nicolas Sarkozy would, the thinking went. Hollande himself was weighing up another run on the Socialist ticket. If not, then-Prime Minister Manuel Valls would step in.

“In the beginning, they made fun of us,” Ferrand said in an interview.

They aren’t laughing now.

Even after a tightening of the race over the past week, surveys show Macron about five points ahead of Republican Francois Fillon in the battle to join Marine Le Pen in the presidential runoff. If he can defend that lead through the next two weeks of campaigning, he’ll beat the National Front leader by some 20 points on May 7, pollsters project.

The son of doctors in Amiens, two hours north of Paris, Macron’s early years were shaped by his grandmother, who schooled him in the French classics. He moved to Paris at 15 to attend the prestigious Lycee Henry IV high school and then graduated from the National School of Administration, the finishing school for the French elite.

Macron’s initiation into the world of politics came in 2007, the year he married his high-school drama teacher, Brigitte. The young civil servant joined the newly elected Sarkozy’s commission on economic reforms, the perfect platform to expand his contacts among the French elite. One of them was Francois Hollande, then a career Socialist and a long shot for the presidency.

While Macron joined Rothschild & Cie when the commission’s work wound up in 2008, he kept in touch with Hollande. By the time Macron was advising on Nestle SA’s $12 billion acquisition of Pfizer Inc.’s Wyeth infant nutrition business in early 2012, Hollande was on his way to the Elysee and he wanted to take the investment banker with him. When the economic adviser’s cabinet job materialized in 2014, he was 36.

Macron took to frontline politics like a natural. A month into the job he had orchestrated his first encounter with the voters at a low-key annual event when state buildings throw open their doors to the public. 

The new minister, who’d been a lead actor in his high-school productions, spent more than two hours shaking hands, taking selfies and making eye contact with hundreds of curious visitors. In his office overlooking the River Seine, he knelt down to talk to a little girl, Brigitte close at hand. An older lady questioned whether he was really committed to changing France.

Photographer: Martin Bureau/AFP via Getty Images

“You are like Saint Thomas,” he told her. “You only believe in what you see. Me too. And I’ll use all my energy to produce results.”

In an April 6 interview on France 2 television, he picked out those early days in the ministry as a key moment in his evolution.

“That sparked something in me,” he said. “I said to myself: I won’t let this go — I’ll fight for everything I can as a minister. And then bit by bit, the rest followed.”

One key element was Ferrand. They met at the start of his term as the minister sought support for his economic-reform bill. The 54-year-old lawmaker from Brittany accused Macron of being a technocrat and a banker who was about to push for changes that risked ravaging towns and villages across France.

“At least you are frank,” Macron told him. “That’s good because I am too.”

“We hit it off immediately,” Ferrand recalls.

Macron attends a meeting as economy minister on Sept. 9, 2014.
Photographer: Patrick Kovarik/AFP via Getty Images

Business-friendly but unideological, the freshman economy minister threw himself into a plan to loosen regulation on everything from Sunday shopping to notaries. He spent more than 100 hours in committees honing the legislation, considering 9,000 amendments and adopting more than 2,000.

But the Socialists in parliament didn’t trust him. The center-right opposition was sympathetic, but unwilling to help an unpopular government. Caught between politicking on both sides, Macron’s first big political venture was reduced to a Pyrrhic victory when the prime minister, Valls, invoked special constitutional powers to force the bill into law over parliamentary opposition.

“It hurt him,” said Marc Ferracci, an economist friend from his student days. “He realized the political system is broken. And so the project started to crystallize.”

The clash between the wonkish Macron and more seasoned politicians foreshadowed the dynamics of the presidential campaign. In the March 20 TV debate, Le Pen mocked his reluctance to give simple answers.

“You’ve just spoken for seven minutes and I have no idea where you stand,” she said, breaking out laughing.

All the same, Macron emerged from that bruising experience with an experienced political wingman in Ferrand and a overarching idea — the need to fix the political system. As the two men prepared to unveil the En Marche political movement in Amiens on April 6, 2016, the future was becoming clearer.

“You know where this leads,” the lawmaker told the young minister. Macron just smiled.

There was one awkward hurdle still to be negotiated: Hollande.

At some point Macron would have to own up to his mentor that he was aiming to replace him. After visiting the president to discuss it in person, the candidate went public on Aug. 30. Three months later, Hollande announced he wouldn’t be seeking re-election, the first president to bow out in that fashion since the Fifth Republic was founded in 1958.

Hollande and Macron at the Nouvelle France Industrielle event at the Elysee Palace on May 23, 2016.
Photographer: Charles Platiau/AFP via Getty Images

“That was good news politically but it was also good news on a personal level,” Ferracci said. “It would have been more difficult if Hollande was in the race.”

If the first phase of Macron’s rise was characterized by audacity, then the second was more about luck. As the candidate began appearing at political rallies across the country and on glossy magazine covers, his path to the presidency started to open up.

The center-right Republicans shunned the popular, moderate Juppe in favor of the hardline Fillon and the Socialists nominated the left-winger Benoit Hamon, leaving the political center ground uncontested. Then Fillon’s lead of more than 10 points evaporated amid a financial scandal that threatened to end the Republican’s chances. Suddenly, Macron was the favorite.

“There was the right alignment of the stars,” said Sylvie Goulard, a lawmaker in the European Parliament who was an early Macron supporter. “But as the French expression goes, fortune opens up to the audacious.”

He may need more of both if he’s to close out this race. Becoming front-runner has invited attacks from all sides.

Fillon dubs him “Emmanuel Hollande,” trying to taint his candidacy with the toxic legacy of the president. Le Pen mocks him for speaking in techno-babble. And the polls are tightening.

With assistance from Helene Fouquet and Alex Tribou.