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What Emmanuel Macron’s home town says about him

Posted by hkarner - 6. Mai 2017

Date: 04-05-2017
Source: The Economist

The French presidential favourite was shaped by Amiens, the place he outgrew

WHEN history recounts the remarkable rise of Emmanuel Macron, it might start and end in the town of Amiens. On the big-skied plains of the Somme, amid the woods and the fields of yellow rape that cover former bloody battlefields, this redbrick working-class city is the French presidential candidate’s hometown. With its soaring 13th-century cathedral, and charmless rebuilt central drag, Amiens is arresting both for its splendour and its banality. It is the place that shaped Mr Macron, and the town he fled. It was also the setting for a fraught encounter in the campaign’s closing days, which revealed much about the man who could soon be the next, and youngest-ever, president of France.

It was as a pupil at a private Jesuit school in Amiens, aptly named Providence, that Mr Macron met the drama teacher, Brigitte Auzière, fully 24 years his senior, who later became his wife. The bond alarmed his parents, both provincial doctors, who sent him to finish his schooling in Paris instead. The bookish student was at first in awe at the brilliance of the capital’s brightest. But he quickly learned the codes of the French elite, winning a place at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration—whose alumni include three of the five past presidents—and with it access to the power-brokers in Paris.

If Mr Macron outgrew Amiens, it was through a desire, as he puts it, “to choose my own life”. What underlies his single-mindedness is a “quest for liberty”, says Marc Ferracci, his best man and an economist on his team. Mr Macron defied convention with his marriage. He later sought financial independence by working as an investment banker at Rothschild. As economy minister under the Socialist president, François Hollande, he was an outspoken critic of the 35-hour working week. Just a year ago, Mr Macron flouted rules by launching his own political movement, En Marche! (“On the Move!”), as a rival to both the Socialist Party he once belonged to, and the president he served. The gamble was immense; so was the freedom it secured him.

When the French select their president on May 7th, Amiens is set to back its most famous son. In first-round voting he came top there, scoring four points above his national result. Yet the town’s gritty industrial vulnerability also makes it an awkward home turf for the candidate whom Marine Le Pen, his nationalist opponent, pillories as the champion of “savage globalisation”, “arrogant finance” and the rootless elite. Its unemployment rate, at 12%, is above the national average. In recent years Amiens has lost a mattress factory and a tyre plant. Now the Whirlpool factory, where 286 workers make tumble-dryers, is closing too, with production moving to lower-cost Poland. The town’s troubles, in short, put Mr Macron’s pro-European creed of open borders and corporate freedom sorely to the test.

So it was not until last week that Mr Macron at last made a campaign stop in Amiens. It began dismally. As he sat down with union leaders in a meeting room in the town centre, Ms Le Pen staged an ambush. Turning up unannounced at the Whirlpool factory gate on the outskirts, she claimed to be supporting “the workers” while Mr Macron was defending “the oligarchy”. His team hastily scheduled a campaign stop at the factory that afternoon. It was a brave decision. As plumes of black smoke rose from burning tyres, unionists in fluorescent jackets awaited his arrival in a hostile, muscular block. The acrid stink of charred rubber hung in the air. “We don’t expect anything of Macron, he’s just the continuation of Hollande,” declared Jean Santerre, a worker at the factory for 23 years. He said that he and his colleagues will vote for Ms Le Pen, because she will “shut the borders” and stop foreigners taking French jobs.

Sure enough, when the besuited Mr Macron stepped from his car, he was jeered. His security team trailed his black car all the way down the narrow lane leading to the picket line, just in case. Yet for nearly an hour the candidate waded into the edgy crowd, taking on the abuse, arguing his case, and refusing to make empty promises. Non, he said, he could not outlaw factory closures. Non, shutting the border would not help France in the long run. Retraining would be improved; buy-out options would be examined. By the time Mr Macron drove off, Mr Santerre and his friends had not changed their minds. But calm had returned, and with it a certain respect for his efforts.

No fear
The Amiens moment may not shift votes. It was Ms Le Pen’s selfies with smiling workers that grabbed the headlines. Yet it offered a telling insight. Although 60% say they will vote for Mr Macron, only 37% think he has presidential stature. He has often appeared more ambiguous than decisive, more charming than tough. Even in France, which treats public intellectuals like national treasures, his erudite vocabulary and measured reasoning are mocked. At rallies, he drowns his audience with abstract nouns; when he finally told an anecdote on stage in Paris this week, it was about a philosopher. Perhaps the only thing that his detractors and admirers agree on is that Mr Macron is “dans la séduction”. Dinner guests and factory workers alike are left with the impression that he has listened, and valued the argument.

If there are reservations about Mr Macron’s ability to lead, they concern his untested political resolve. Faced with a fractured country, restless unions and a potentially unstable parliament after legislative elections in June, would he have what it takes to stave off, or withstand, revolt? “He is fearless,” says a team member, pointing to the way that he, a newcomer to elections, has swept aside political veterans and is now dictating terms to them. In 2012 Mr Hollande also visited a factory, a steelworks, during his campaign. He vowed to rescue it, failed while in office, and political disillusion ensued. Mr Macron’s gutsier approach in Amiens may not be what wins him the presidency. But it suggests how he might exercise it.

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