For the past two years, I have spent much of my time in Paris getting to know Emmanuel Macron. The youthful French leader, now 42, would invite me occasionally to the Élysée Palace for rambling discussions about France, Europe, and the state of the world, for the purposes of a book I was writing about his turbulent presidency. I had embarked on the book project because I sensed he was a unique figure in the world of global politics, with a penchant for philosophy rather than deal-making. Here was a political neophyte, never before elected to public office, who not only succeeded in his bold gambit to ascend to the highest office in the land but embraced herculean ambitions at the outset of his presidency with the conviction that he could modernize France, invigorate the drive for a more united Europe, and reshape the world order that was crumbling with the abdication of American leadership.
Macron always told me that he was engaged in a race against time, that he feared Europe might not survive the next major crisis unless he and other Continental leaders achieved a dramatic transformation in the ways that France and the European Union were governed. So far, it has been a roller-coaster ride of successes and failures. During one of our conversations about the state of Europe and the world, he seemed to become mired in a pessimistic mood about the magnitude of the challenges he had set for himself. At one point, he muttered the phrase “À quoi bon? À quoi bon?” (What’s the use?) in a way that startled his aides who had joined our meeting. But to Macron’s credit, he has refused to back away from his goals, vowing to continue the fight on all fronts. Now, with the coronavirus ravaging much of France and Europe, he confronts his gravest challenge as he strives to prepare for a post-pandemic world.
Macron always told me that he was engaged in a race against time.
I once asked Macron what had most surprised him about serving as the most powerful man in his country. He leaned back in his chair, contemplated the question for about 10 seconds, and then replied that what most shocked him was the poisonous personal hostility that now permeates modern politics. He said he always expected that people would disagree with his radical reform ideas, but not to the extent of making frequent death threats, hanging him in effigy, and spitting on him in public. Nothing had prepared him for the intensity of the venomous hatred that he encountered in office, which he later attributed to the growing disconnect between elites and popular masses, and between urban and rural communities, in Western democracies. The yellow-vest protests—which at one point threatened to topple Macron from power—so baffled him that he seemed to fall into a mild depression, isolating himself in the Élysée Palace for more than three weeks. He lost weight and seemed disoriented at times, often dispatching encrypted messages on Telegram, his favorite communications tool, to friends at three A.M., seeking their advice and consolation.
As we parted after our final conversation about the book, Macron shook my hand warmly. He had confided that he looked forward to the day when he could leave politics and devote his time to writing. It has always been his passion to become one of France’s literary lions—as a teenager he wrote a phantasmagorical novel about South America that he has kept hidden from all but his wife, Brigitte, and his closest friends. Then he disappeared behind the massive doors of his office, overlooking the sprawling Élysée garden, alone in silence with just his thoughts.
William Drozdiak’s The Last President of Europe: Emmanuel Macron’s Race to Revive France and Save the World is out now from PublicAffairs