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France’s best hope against a far-right takeover is an inexperienced former banker

Emmanuel Macron, head of the political movement En Marche !, or Onwards !, and candidate for the 2017 French presidential election, celebrates after partial results in the first round of 2017 French presidential election, at the Parc des Expositions hall in Paris, France April 23, 2017.
Benoit Tessier | Reuters
Emmanuel Macron, head of the political movement En Marche !, or Onwards !, and candidate for the 2017 French presidential election, celebrates after partial results in the first round of 2017 French presidential election, at the Parc des Expositions hall in Paris, France April 23, 2017.

In France, all eyes are on a dapper former banker who has never held public office as the country heads into the second round of voting on May 7 in the French presidential elections. Thirty-nine years old, with a face that looks a decade younger, Emmanuel Macron has emerged as France's last, best, and perhaps only chance of staving off far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.

That France finds itself in this position — hoping for a complete novice to win and cringing at the consequences if he should falter — has rattled the French political establishment, and Europe.

He has already emerged victorious in round one, held April 23, pulling 23.7 percent of the vote from the other ten candidates and edging out Le Pen, who came in second.

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That's a shocking spot for a man who has no established political party, has never run for office, and most recently served in the beleaguered Socialist Party government of François Hollande, a president so unpopular he didn't even attempt to run again. Macron broke with the socialists last August and launched a bid for the presidency. Initially seen as an unlikely upstart, he spent the spring steadily climbing the polls as other candidates are brought down by corruption charges and political infighting.

Just before leaving Hollande's government, Macron created his own center-left nascent political party, which now backs his candidacy. It's called "En Marche!" (translated as "On the move!" or "Forward!"). Thousands have signed up online in support.

In any other election year, that sort of outsider third-party upstart campaign might have amounted to little more than a notable political peculiarity, not a winning bid. But then a corruption scandal ensnared the race's more likely candidate, François Fillon of the conservative Republican Party — who, nevertheless, refused to drop out. Fillon is charged with having paid his wife, Penelope, and family members a million euros for work they did not do. He denies the allegation, naturally.

Meanwhile, on the left, intraparty squabbles in the Socialist Party left it with a relatively unknown brand new candidate — Benoît Hamon — rather than Hollande, the incumbent president. Hamon took a dismal 6.2 percent of the vote on Sunday — undermined by both popular dismay at the current socialist regime and a rising challenge from the far left in the form of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who managed over 19 percent in the first round. Mélenchon is a far-left populist who began to surge in popularity in just the past few weeks on the backs of an anti-globalization platform calling for raising taxes, pulling out of trade deals, and reducing the workweek further.

With all the usual players in France's political game cast aside, Macron suddenly looked very presidential indeed.

And so, untried or not, many French are now counting on him to hold off the ascension of the populist, anti-globalization, anti–European Union candidate Marine Le Pen of the Front National. And, after election results came in Sunday, both Fillon and Hamon immediately called for the French electorate to back Macron against the far right.

Indeed, given Le Pen's campaign promises to pull France out of the EU and the common currency (or at the very least try), it isn't an exaggeration to say that it's more than France's future that is riding on the fate of Emmanuel Macron. The future of the EU itself is as well.

Meet France's last great hope

Macron is a social liberal, a centrist, and an evangelist for liberalizing the French economy. He embraces the European Union with both arms and has criticized both Brexit and Donald Trump — even going as far as to offer safe haven to those Americans who find themselves at odds with the current administration for their belief in science or their hope for academics, or those who wish for a future that involves the rest of the world.

He is currently projected to beat Le Pen in the second round.

And yet, polls aside, French observers' optimism about Macron's candidacy comes with a heavy dollop of concern. For one, he has only just begun to truly detail what his policies will actually be.

"Macron is a very fragile candidate. He's young. He has absolutely no experience," a senior French official told me, speaking on condition of anonymity, as he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the government. "Frankly, he's making blunder after blunder after blunder."

And yet, the same official said, "It may work because, in a sense, he looks different. He's not a traditional politician. He's a populist also from the center. He's liberal, he's more European, and, again, he has never been elected. And in our system, it's never seen. In our political system, when you are a candidate it means that you have been around for 30 years."

"Our election is extremely, totally unusual," the official added, in an understatement.

A love affair even surprising for the French

Emmanuel Macron was born to physician parents in Amiens, a village about two hours north of Paris that boasts a Gothic cathedral and was the site of a major battle during the First World War. Macron referenced that bloody history to underscore the risks of returning to a divided Europe in a presidential debate two weeks ago. "Nationalism is war," he said. "I know it. I come from a region that is full of graveyards." It was a well-constructed dig at Le Pen's hypernationalism.

As a child and adolescent in Amiens, Macron was a standout. He was a brilliant student and a well-regarded pianist. But he was also unusual in other ways. He fell in love with his French literature teacher, Brigitte Trogneux, who was more than 20 years his senior.

The feeling was mutual, but complicated: When they met, Macron was 15; she was 36 and married with three children. Though he was soon shipped off to study at the prestigious Lycée Henri IV, a high school in Paris, he swore to her that he remained undeterred in his quest for her heart.

"You will not get rid of me," he told her in as he left for high school in Paris, according to the French magazine Paris Match. "I will come back and marry you." He made good on that promise: They were married in 2007.

The story of their love has prompted some sniffing, though. It is a bit of an oddity even in France, where sexual freedom (and privacy) is privileged and American sexual mores are pooh-poohed as uptight. She is considered an unofficial (unpaid) adviser to his campaign, and he relies on her heavily. There were even rumors — published on a Russian-backed website — that Macron is actually gay. He denied them vigorously.

Theirs is an oft-photographed love story, unusual as the age gap gender reversal might be.

As one former classmate recalled to the magazine Le Parisien, even back in their school days, the young Macron seemed "already much older than we were, without a doubt because he was already in a couple with his former French teacher."

Macron is a member of the French elite

Macron is what the French call an énarque — that is, he studied at the École Nationale D'Administration, considered an elite feeder school for those who eventually go on to run the country. To go there is a calculated choice, a step on the path to public office. Macron graduated at the top of his class in 2004.

But instead of immediately entering politics, Macron went to work at the Rothschild bank, where he negotiated a sale between Pfizer and Nestle in 2012 that made him a rich man. The estimates of his wealth vary widely, but most place it in the millions.

"He worked as an investment banker, which makes him hated, openly, by a part of the population who like nothing more than to criticize banks," says Martin Michelot, deputy director of the Europeum Institute for European Policy in Prague. "But it is a funny argument, because people say, 'He is a banker, he has no political experience, he's never been elected.' But at same time, [they] criticize people like [Francois] Fillon or Marine Le Pen who have been elected or been in politics their whole life."

Macron was appointed as an adviser to the Hollande government in 2012 (taking a massive pay cut), and then became economics minister in 2014. He brought with him a number of ideas he had developed in the private sector.

For instance, he questioned the sanctity of France's 35-hour workweek (he'd be open to a longer one), the rigidity of the retirement age, and France's notoriously inflexible laws of hiring and firing, which he saw as contributing to the stagnant economy. He is liberal in the classical sense, in that he believes in the virtue of the free market. In an oft-repeated quote, when Hollande during his election campaign floated the idea of a 75 percent tax hike on higher earners, Macron said, "It's Cuba without the sun!"

By May 2015, the British magazine Prospect, in a piece headlined "Can this man save France?" was calling Macron the "face of reform" — yet the piece also noted that Macron had such a baby face that a French satirical television program had presented him onscreen as a literal baby. The video (in French) is pretty funny, with a little baby Macron saying, "The 35 hours c'est caca!" — that is, "The 35-hour week is poop."

And by December of 2015, he was enough of a domestic novelty star that the weekly political magazine Le Point ran a cover story that asked "Macron: et pourquoi pas lui?" — Macron: Why not him? In other words: Why not a Macron presidency?

"Macron is a superstar in London, Berlin, Montreal — basically all the cities that French entrepreneurs have emigrated to to pursue business opportunities, especially in the startup world," says Martin Michelon.

But that doesn't mean he's a man of the people. And in an era of right-wing populism, and the disintegration of the French manufacturing and agricultural jobs of the past, that might be a problem.

A guy like this would have no chance in a normal election. It's not a normal election.

But even with so many accolades, it's unlikely Macron, with no experience as an elected official, would have made it to presidential frontrunner status in a normal year.

As late as August 2014, one of his early champions — economist Jacques Attali, known for nurturing future leaders — told the Daily Beast he was predicting a Macron presidency in 20years.

Macron's unlikely ascendency has come so quickly in no small part because the rest of the candidates have struggled — Fillon, the Conservative Party candidate, most spectacularly, due to the corruption scandal currently engulfing him.

But Macron has also started to carefully carve out a space for himself in opposition to the xenophobia of Le Pen. Fillon hasn't run away from this trait but has seemed, instead, to embrace it; he's begun to sound so aggressive on the questions of immigration and Islam that it's become hard to distinguish the two — he often sounds more hardline than Le Pen herself. "We've got to reduce immigration to its strict minimum," he told crowds in November, and in the same speech, he likened radical Islam to "totalitarianism like the Nazis."

Macron, on the other hand, has drawn a clear line between himself and Le Pen's radical views. In the first presidential debate, he declared: "The trap you are falling into, Madame Le Pen, with your provocations, is to divide society." He then accused her of making "enemies out of more than 4 million French men and women whose religion happens to be Islam."

But he has also made what the public saw as mistakes. During a visit to Algeria, he told the Algerians that French colonialism in their country had been a crime against humanity. "It's truly barbarous and it's part of a past that we need to confront by apologising to those against whom we committed these acts," he said. Breast-beating about the horrors of colonialism may be made in the salons of Paris — the French role in Algeria has been an argument and a debate for decades — but that's just not something a French politician is supposed to say when outside of France.

"There is a basic saying: 'You don't criticize your country abroad.' It was a blunder," the French official I spoke to told me. Macron tried to explain what he meant, but ended up miring himself deeper in a culture war about how the French handle — and don't handle — their colonial history. His opponents immediately pounced.

"This hatred of our history, this constant repentance is undignified for a presidential candidate. It wasn't so long ago that Mr. Macron recognised some of the positive aspects of colonisation. This means that Emmanuel Macron has no spine. He's simply saying what people want to hear," Fillon said at a political rally in February.

Macron is also an intellectual who speaks a florid, sophisticated French, the French official pointed out to me, which means that like his Algeria statements, his speeches are too often pitched at the academy, rather than at the street and global community.

There have been other critiques as well. A Le Monde profile of him quoted the current health minister, Marisol Touraine, calling his deft maneuvering around Hollande the "hold up of the century." The piece also described it as the "crime of the century" and a "parricide" — the murder of a parent.

The €64,000 question: can Macron actually win?

The biggest wild card in the French election right now is whether Macron can inspire and motivate enough voters to actually win the presidency.

For years, there has been what the French call a "firewall" against the election of a far-right leader. In the second round, no matter how far a Front National candidate may have gotten, the entire country has historically hunkered down and voted for the other candidate.

That's what happened in 2002: Jean-Marie Le Pen, co-founder of the FN, and Marine's father, came in a shocking second above the other candidates, in the first round against Jacques Chirac. But then Chirac walloped him in round two, securing a whopping 82 percent compared with Le Pen's 18 percent.

This year, though, that firewall has felt a little less secure. As March turned into April there was growing concern that some 30 percent of the French electorate had been fairly consistently telling pollsters that they simply aren't interested in any of the candidates.

"Macron is the same as all the other politicians who went to the same schools and eat at the same restaurants," one 24-year-old told the Financial Times. "Most of us will probably abstain if he is the only other choice to Le Pen."

This wave of non-interest may have been overstated. While turnout for round one appears to have been below 2012, it was up above 70% already by 5 p.m. local time. The French normally go to the polls in enviable numbers — 80 percent turnout is not unusual. (Turnout in US presidential elections for 2016 hovered around 55 percent, by comparison.)

Nevertheless, France watchers worry that abstention and apathy would help boost the far right. Like Trump in the 2016 US election, Marine Le Pen may not have the absolute numbers that can win her the election if everyone turns out, but her voters appear to be more energized than the general electorate.

The Financial Times and Quartz have both reported how abstention combined with a robust Le Pen fan base might mean she can eke out a victory.

This is where Macron's Rothschild bank past, and his youth, could hurt him — and help Le Pen. Philippe Marlière, a professor of French and European politics at the University College of London, calls the Macron movement a "gamble" on "dynamism" and youth.

As the election approaches, the constantly fluctuating polls have everyone uncertain. Whether that youthful gamble will ultimately pay off remains to be seen.

The French political establishment is taking no risks however. As soon as the results came in the current prime minister issued a dire call to arms to fight the far right.

Commentary by Sarah Wildman, a foreign policy identity & borders writer for Vox. Follow her on Twitter @sarahwildman.

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