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The French Ambition, Inside Macron’s Remarkable Climb To The Top

A mix of arrogance, careful planning and fortuitous circumstances have brought the political outsider and youthful former economy minister Emmanuel Macron to the gates of the French presidency.

Monsieur le president
Solenn de Royer and Cédric Pietralunga

PARIS — "I have a feeling people are going to be talking about you." It was last Aug. 31, and newly installed Economy Minister Michel Sapin was speaking at the Bercy ministry headquarters along the Seine in an office farewell to his predecessor Emmanuel Macron, who had recently announced his resignation after serving two years in the post. "I hope your good luck turns out to be good luck for everyone."

At the time, no one in France's governing Socialist Party or the administration believed Macron, a former banker with Rothschild and Co. could pull off what was then a still-to-be-declared gamble to become president.

But on Sunday, Macron emerged as the winner of the first round of the French presidential elections, with a runoff set for May 7 against far-right National Front's Marine Le Pen.

Back last summer, as his popularity was surging in various opinion polls, Macron was flexing his muscles, hinting that he had the power to disrupt the status quo if the ruling Socialist party didn't make room for his ambitions. But, recalled party leader Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, there wasn't "space for him to go alone." Other party insiders considered Macron a passing bubble, with most still convinced that President François Hollande would seek a second term.

Hollande, who had first tapped Macron as top economic adviser in 2012, could not see a future for En marche ! (Onward!) — the party Macron founded in the northern French city of Amiens last April. It was merely a "youth movement," a flame that would "flicker out," the president told confidantes. Hollande was in denial, and would later note of Macron: "He betrayed me, methodically."

Macron, as early as August 2015, had told people close to him that he intended to run for president, an objective he concealed from the public. The economy ministry would be a launching pad for his ambition.

Macron dismisses the charges of betrayal and believes he doesn't owe anyone anything.

Arriving at the key cabinet ministry post in the second half of 2014, Macron began to network with people, including celebrities. He observed that the Socialist presidency was in marked decline and Hollande would be unable to seek a second term.

"You'll see, Hollande won't be a candidate," he predicted last March to Sébastien Denaja, a Socialist member of Parliament close to the president.

Julien Dray, an old friend of Hollande, says regretfully: "I spent four years of my life with Macron and couldn't see it coming. He is very charming when it comes to seducing the older gentlemen. I was taken in like the others."

Macron dismisses the charges of betrayal and believes he doesn't owe anyone anything. "Emmanuel is very attached to his freedom," says one of his few close friends, the economist Marc Ferracci. "He has risen by liberating himself. You can see this in his progression, especially in his marriage." (Macron broke convention by marrying his former high school teacher, 25 years his senior.)

Macron, who went to a Jesuit secondary school, is meticulous and careful. He always checks the guest list at dinners to which he is invited, lest some foreign lobbyist or banker there might infect him with a whiff of suspicion.

He planned every stage of his campaign. In his first event as a potential candidate on Sept. 1, 2016, his campaign message was firmly in place. While taking selfies with supporters at a fair in Châlons-en-Champagne, he said that "the divide today is more between conservatives and progressives than between the Right and Left." He stuck to this distinction throughout his campaign.

On Nov. 16, he became an official candidate. On Dec. 1, Hollande abandoned his bid for reelection, which was unprecedented in France's Fifth Republic, allowing Macron to disrupt the Socialist Party primaries, even as he remained aloof from its infighting.

Macron was also happy to play the glamor card, appearing with wife Brigitte Trogneux in magazines such as Paris Match and VSD. While the Socialist aspirants had trouble filling assembly halls, he gathered 10,000 people at Porte de Versailles in Paris on Dec. 10.

He gathered a tightly-knit team of technocrats for his lightning campaign, most of them former ministry colleagues. He was a loner in politics and started from scratch. But instead of seeking party backing, he focused on opinion polls, which he began to climb.

In presidential elections, you always win by default.

But it is undeniable that his rise couldn't have happened without having somehow siphoned off Hollande's legendary good luck.

Two dangerous rivals, the conservative, Alain Juppé, and the Socialist prime minister, Manuel Valls, were knocked out in their respective party primaries. They had been in Macron's electoral territory. Their twin defeats left him in charge of the political center.

At the end of January, the investigative newspaper Canard Enchaîné published the first in a series of stories that alleged that Penelope Fillon, wife of conservative presidential candidate François Fillon, had been paid significant amounts of money over several years for government jobs she did not actually perform. Fillon sank in the polls.

There is no politics without risk but "there can be politicians without luck," Macron quipped, citing the remarks of a 20th century French politician. Soon, he was leading national opinion polls alongside Le Pen.

Hollande observes in retrospect that Macron's "strategy only gave results because of circumstances coming together." Macron himself admitted in private in early January that "in presidential elections, you always win by default."

But with his rise, Macron also became a target. His statements began to be scrutinized and dissected. He could no longer make a mistake. In February, his campaign seemed to stall for the first time. A rally in Lyon on Feb. 4 proved disappointing. The candidate spoke for more than 90 minutes without making specific proposals, which prompted doubts even among his supporters. He tried to cater to all constituencies, which started to become tiresome. He seemed nervous, and his poll numbers would begin to slip.

But Macron strategically ended the free fall by gaining the endorsement of prominent centrist François Bayrou, who had earlier opposed Macron. The partnership became a turning point in Macron's candidacy and earned him a lasting lead, reinforced by a growing team of top-shelf advisors, including economist Jean Pisani-Ferry, who was recruited to shape Macron's proposals, sticking to a tight budget framework and giving Macron's policies coherence.

As conservative officials abandoned Fillon's campaign, and Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon's campaign struggled to take off, more and more people joined Macron. The polls would continue in his favor right through the first-round vote itself. Some could see it as Hollande ally and Health Minister Marisol Touraine, who suggested that Macron was pulling off the electoral "holdup of the century." The head of the socialist group in parliament, Olivier Faure, used another metaphor, tipping his hat to the strategic brilliance on the political battlefield, saying people would remember "Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, and Macron."

Just days before the first-round voting, Macron was filmed playing with a plastic bottle at his campaign office. Snapchat users had called on him to take the popular online "challenge" to flip a water bottle and make it land upright. And land upright it did. "Voilà," Macron said, with cool satisfaction. François Hollande's former adviser is not yet 40 years old and he looks set to become France's eighth president of the Fifth Republic.

Voilà indeed.

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U.S., France, Israel: How Three Model Democracies Are Coming Unglued

France, Israel, United States: these three democracies all face their own distinct problems. But these problems are revealing disturbing cracks in society that pose a real danger to hard-earned progress that won't be easily regained.

Image of a crowd of protestors holding Israeli flags and a woman speaking into a megaphone

Israeli anti-government protesters take to the streets in Tel-Aviv, after Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired Defence Minister Yoav Galant.

Dominique Moïsi

"I'd rather be a Russian than a Democrat," reads the t-shirt of a Republican Party supporter in the U.S.

"We need to bring the French economy to its knees," announces the leader of the French union Confédération Générale du Travail.

"Let's end the power of the Supreme Court filled with leftist and pro-Palestinian Ashkenazis," say Israeli government cabinet ministers pushing extreme judicial reforms

The United States, France, Israel: three countries, three continents, three situations that have nothing to do with each other. But each country appears to be on the edge of a nervous breakdown of what seemed like solid democracies.

How can we explain these political excesses, irrational proclamations, even suicidal tendencies?

The answer seems simple: in the United States, in France, in Israel — far from an exhaustive list — democracy is facing the challenge of society's ever-greater polarization. We can manage the competition of ideas and opposing interests. But how to respond to rage, even hatred, borne of a sense of injustice and humiliation?

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