Ahead of an interview with French presidential frontrunner Emmanuel Macron last month, The Sunday Times tracked down some of his friends. Three things were striking. "The first is that everyone says he is brilliant exceptional, talented, gifted. The second is that Macron is his own man, servant only to [his wife] Brigitte. He has left everyone else family and friends behind. The third is that he is as ambiguous as a 17th-century cardinal."
Macron claims to be leading a "transpartisan" movement that is "neither of the left nor the right". But that doesn't come close to describing his rocket-powered ascent through France's hidebound political system. Largely unknown to the public just three years ago, the 39-year-old En Marche! founder is hailed by fans as "a French JFK".
The astonishing "blaze of Macron's comet" has meant that his youthful experiences growing up in the northern city of Amiens have come under more than the usual scrutiny, says The Observer. However, it was his parents' decision to send their intellectually precocious son to school in Paris that put him on the academic fast-track. He went on to study philosophy at university and join France's ENA civil service school, says The New Yorker.
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He then joined the French civil service before switching to Rothschild as an investment banker in 2008. "You're conscious that banking is not any kind of job? And Rothschild is not any kind of bank?" warned a friend. But Macron shrugged off these warnings, says the Financial Times, and learnt the ropes of debt restructuring and mergers and acquisitions, earning both a healthy €2.9m and the nickname "the Mozart of finance" for his role advising Nestl on its $12bn acquisition of a unit of Pfizer in 2012. His rival in the presidential race has consequently tried to paint him as the "candidate of finance".
His stroke of luck politically was meeting economist Jacques Attali an adviser to successive French presidents who was sufficiently impressed to introduce him to Socialist leader Franois Hollande. When Hollande became president in 2012, he made Macron his economic adviser. The pair fell out when Hollande refused to give him a ministerial post and there followed a brief period in the wilderness.
But in 2014, Macron returned in triumph to help rescue Hollande from the ruins of his economic strategy. When Macron launched En Marche! a year ago, Hollande was dismissive, but he clearly hadn't banked on Macron's winning formula of marrying youthful optimism with a centrist, pro-EU manifesto of "liberal structural reform", says The Sunday Times. Like Barack Obama, he peddled hope, "running En Marche! like a start-upfull of les jeunes tapping enthusiastically on MacBooks", and giving "speeches like TED talks".
"Win or lose, Macron has revolutionised French politics," says The Economist. Thanks to "a dream, a gamble and a heavy dose of luck", he may become the youngest-ever head of the Fifth Republic. "After that, the hard part begins."
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