Macron Found His Voice by Returning to Rustbelt Hometown

  • After 24 years in the capital, Macron’s campaign took him home
  • Macron warns against sleepwalking through 21st century risks

Emmanuel Macron had to return to his roots to find the president inside.

In the parking lot of a threatened factory in his hometown of Amiens, the former investment banker waded into a crowd of angry, striking workers on April 26 to debate the merits of globalization as the black smoke of burning tires filled the air.

Macron meets strike employees of Whirlpool in Amiens on April 26.

Photographer: Chesnot/Getty Images

After winning the first round of the presidential election, the eyes of the world were on him. His rival Marine Le Pen was labeling him an out-of-touch elitist. What’s more, she appeared to have outwitted him by showing up earlier in the day to whip up hostility among the strikers.

Though Macron didn’t emerge unscathed, he came out with a new sense of political purpose. Still wearing the same smoke-infused suit, he walked out on stage in nearby Arras later in the day, deep in the northern heartland where Le Pen topped the first round with 31 percent.

“Tonight I want to tell you: it pains me in my flesh and bones to see the National Front’s score here,” he told the crowd, the strain and fatigue of the day still written on his face.

The 39-year-old liberal talked of the “charms, sadness and sufferings” of the people he grew up among, and the cemeteries that litter the region from Europe’s great wars. He spoke of how the “rhetoric of hatred” had led to those conflicts and, his voice rising, of his fears that Le Pen might arouse similar passions.

“I, like you, want something else for my country,” he shouted. “Not that! Not that! Not that!”

The day marked a turning point, not only for France’s most turbulent campaign in decades, but for the political prodigy himself. For 24 years, the son of small town doctors had immersed himself in Paris’s cosmopolitan elite, rising rapidly and impressing many. But it was the return to Amiens -- and the provocation of Le Pen -- that showed the world his mettle.

“For half the electorate, the incident showed that Emmanuel Macron had the courage to go and tell workers the truth: that their jobs couldn’t be saved,” said Thomas Guenole, a professor of politics at the Sciences Po Institute in Paris. “For the other half it’s a scandal that he could say such a thing when he’s about to become the next president. But even to them it showed firmness.”

Unlikely Candidacy

That Macron should even have been in this position in late April would have seemed barely plausible a year earlier when he launched his independent political movement, En Marche! Though clearly talented and ambitious, Macron had been in the public eye for less than two years at that point and had never sought elected office.

Former Prime Minister Alain Juppe was favorite to replace Francois Hollande as head of state. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy was also targeting a return to the Elysee Palace. If they failed, Hollande himself might manage to retain the job. And if not, Prime Minister Manuel Valls was next in line.

Macron’s name was a long way down the list.

“It’s easy to forget how it was,” said Sylvie Goulard, a European lawmaker who got to know Macron when he visited Brussels as economy minister. “Macron’s candidacy seemed far from obvious to most people.”

Turning those perceptions around over the past year has involved relentless campaigning, high-risk maneuvers that raised eyebrows among many political insiders and at least one large slice of luck.

Going It Alone

Macron’s run to the Elysee Palace started just over a year ago when he founded his political movement, refusing the traditional definitions of left and right. Though its name gave no clue to its political color, it was a statement of intent all the same: “On The Move!”

He was still economy minister in the Socialist Hollande administration then, though he was increasingly out of step with the rest of the government, pushing for more reforms to free up the French economy and action to help the isolated communities on the outskirts of major cities that had become a breeding ground for terrorists.

The initial foray was cautious. Macron said only that he aimed to bridge the partisan divides that have stymied reform as he set out across the country speaking to voters.

The gossip in Paris speculated on what, exactly, he was up to. Hollande in the meantime indulged his younger friend, whose campaign was increasingly at odds with his position as minister. His resignation from the government in late August confirmed suspicions that he was indeed planning a long-shot bid for the presidency, though he held off from a formal announcement.

Meanwhile France’s establishment parties proposed candidates that appealed to their bases during primary season.

Center Ground

Instead of the moderate Juppe, the Republicans picked former Prime Minister Francois Fillon and his promise of a Thatcherite revolution. The Socialists nominated Benoit Hamon, a left wing dissident who was fired from the Hollande government.

A political space was opening up in the center.

“I’ve seen the vacuity of our political system from the inside, with its obsolete rules and its clannish rites,” Macron said as he announced his candidacy on Nov. 16. “The challenge for me is not to unite the left or the right but to unite the French.”

He was polling around 10 percent at that point, barely a third of the support of the front-runners.

Then Fillon ran into trouble.

A newspaper reported in late January that he’d funneled roughly 1 million euros ($1.1 million) of public money into his family’s coffers through a series of fake jobs. Fillon denies wrongdoing, though prosecutors opened an inquiry.

Though Fillon’s campaign staggered on, Macron was now the front-runner.

While everyone around Macron acknowledges his good fortune, they also insist that his analysis of France’s sclerotic politics was what made his bid both necessary and successful.

“Emmanuel Macron’s diagnosis was clear,” his campaign chief Richard Ferrrand said. “He saw the need for a new political choice, a re-composition and renewal of the scene. People said to us it couldn’t happen but it could, and this analysis is the reason.”

Remembering the Wars

But it wasn’t just analysis.

After confronting Le Pen’s supporters in Amiens, he then had to face their candidate in a head-to-head television debate four days before the runoff. Seeking to turn around a 20-point deficit in the polls, the animosity of Le Pen’s broadsides was unprecedented in French presidential politics. She portrayed him as a capitalist elitist and a friend to terrorists, who would shut down factories, schools and hospitals.

“You are a parasite,” he responded. “You are a product of the system that you denounce. You live off it.” The majority of viewers rated him the winner.

There was one final scare.

Minutes before a reporting ban came into force at midnight on Friday, the Macron campaign said it had been the victim of a “massive” cyber attack and the hackers had posted its documents online. While discussion of what the files might contain raged on social media, the press and television stations respected an injunction against reporting any details of the leak and it had no discernible affect on the result.

On Sunday, Macron won the second round of the election with about 65 percent of the vote, according initial estimates. Within a week, he will have replaced Hollande as president.

“A new page opens in our long history this evening,” Macron told the country in a somber address Sunday night. “I want it to be one of hope and renewed confidence.”

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