The Startup President: Part II
In which a young student who is Hot For Teacher moves to the big city and charts a professional career path that makes him hard to define.
The following is an excerpt from a book project about life in modern France. This week, I’m going to publish in 6 parts a chapter I wrote about my various encounters with Emmanuel Macron and his 2017 campaign for president. Most of this is based on stories for VentureBeat and the Los Angeles Times. Some of the writing has been recycled elsewhere, so you may recognize snippets. But with the first round of the French elections approaching this Sunday, it felt like a good time to look back at the last campaign that transformed Macron from an obscure figure to an unlikely president who continues to confound the French.
Macron was born in Amiens, an industrial town in northeast France that is perhaps best known as the place where author Jules Verne lived much of his adult life and is now buried. His parents, a physician and a researcher shipped Macron off to Paris for his last year of high school in hopes it would give his college prospects a boost. Before leaving, he had famously fallen for his French and theater teacher, Brigitte Trogneux, when was 15 years old.
His incessant wooing continued from Paris, even though Trogneux was married and 24 years his senior. This age thing was yet another baffling aspect of Macron, something the French talked about and yet didn’t talk about. Sure, Hollande bumbling around with younger women was perfectly normal in the annals of French politics. But an older woman? A much, much older woman? Nobody seemed sure whether this was a revolutionary feminist breakthrough, or perhaps a creepy abuse of a position of authority by a teacher. The latter seemed the verdict among our American friends, who were roundly denounced by the French for their prudish moors. But still, the heart wants what the heart wants.
"At the age of 17, Emmanuel said to me, 'Whatever you do, I will marry you!'" Brigitte playfully told Paris Match magazine in an interview.
At one of our annual Halloween parties in Toulouse, after Macron was elected, my then 14-year old son and my wife dressed up as Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron.
We found this hysterically funny. Our French friends did not.
In Paris, Macron attended Sciences Po, where he would earn a degree in public service, and the University of Paris-Ouest Nanterre La Défense where he got a degree in philosophy. He served for a time as an editorial assistant to noted French philosopher Jean-Paul Gustave Ricœur while he finished what would be his final work. “I spent a lot of time reading Kant, Aristotle, Descartes,” Macron said in an interview with the Le 1 magazine when he was Economics Minister. “This intellectual refuge, this possibility of representing the world, of giving it meaning through a different prism, has been important. I then discovered Hegel.”
This would all lead later to one of the more surreal moments for me of Macron’s presidential campaign as pundits in newspapers and television engaged in heated debates about whether this upstart had properly earned the right to call himself a philosopher. From across the sea, I watched each day as President Trump massacred the English language on Twitter. In France, I felt like I had stumbled into an alternate universe.
Later, Macron worked as a bureaucrat in the Finance Ministry before quitting to join the Rothschild bank and then finding his way back to public life in the Hollande campaign. For the French, this was an unusual resume for anyone, let alone a public servant who was now overseeing the nation’s economy. Macron, on the other hand, made it clear he didn’t care what anyone else thought about his career, his marriage, or his obsession with reform. This fearlessness combined with what appeared to be an inability to demonstrate empathy managed to make him a divisive figure almost right from the beginning of his term as Economic Minister.
In December 2014, just before appearing at LeWeb, Macron had introduced a piece of legislation dubbed, “Law for growth, activity and equal economic opportunity.” This became derisively dubbed the “Loi Macron” by his critics. The legislation was a grab bag of initiatives that Macron said was intended to cure what he identified as the "three diseases" of France: distrust, complexity, and what he considered to be a kind of clubby corporatism. In practice, that meant truly far-reaching changes like making it easier for companies to hire and fire employees. It also included what seemed like relatively minor shifts to me, but that proved just as explosive. Such as easing rules to let some types of businesses stay open a few extra Sundays each year.
Naturally, these provoked a nationwide backlash with protests and strikes and calls for Macron to resign. From a practical standpoint, the legislation faced trouble because Hollande’s party was a house divided thanks to his centrist turn. To get the law passed, the government resorted to some obscure parliamentary trickery that left a sour taste. Rather than let things settle, Macron’s instinct was to double down and introduce a sequel of reforms. Hollande refused Macron’s efforts but told his protégé he could fold some of his idea into another reform bill being cobbled together by the Labor Minister.
Ultimately, this proved to be even more incendiary.
In May 2016, I participated in a week-long tour for journalists of the Paris tech ecosystem which was gaining momentum thanks to an eager generation of entrepreneurs. But the tour also offered a jarring reminder that this entrepreneurial wave still represented a minority.
During our week in Paris, the city was engulfed in protests over that second proposed labor reform bill by Hollande’s government. The changes had provoked a movement called Nuit Debout, in which protestors gathered in city centers across France and remained awake all night. Now it seemed to be boiling over. Our tour bus rolled past the military-like vans and trucks deploying the gendarmes to battle protestors with tear gas and shields. At various appointments, we learned someone had to cancel because protestors had blocked refineries, causing gas shortages in the capital city.
“You arrived at a time when there is a lot of social tension because we are trying to reform the labor market,” said then-Digital Minister Axelle Lemaire (who reported to Macron) during a breakfast presentation. “In my opinion, this is not the French people, but a minority of activists. But there are a lot of people who are fed up with their government. I believe this is not only the French people. It’s something we see across Europe and the world.”
It was during these protests that Macron engaged in a face-to-face confrontation with a striking worker, who tried to mock the Economy Minister by saying he could only dream of making enough money to afford a suit like the one Macron was wearing at the time. Macron's famously disdainful response: "The best way to pay for a suit is to work."
A month later, the Brexit referendum succeeded. Six months later, Donald Trump was elected president. Meanwhile, in France, a social rift was forming that would tear open in the coming years.
Throughout all of this, there were growing questions about Macron’s ambitions, his loyalties, and his politics. He remained a man apart, uncategorizable in a country that yearns for labels and orderliness.
His response was to do something that would make him even more enigmatic.