On the eve of his first state visit to the U.S., France’s culturally attuned president elaborates on his vision for the republic, his global trepidations, and his “very personal relationship” with Donald Trump.
On a Thursday afternoon in March, I sat in an antechamber on the second floor of the Élysée Palace, waiting for my six P.M. appointment with Emmanuel Macron, the president of France. He had returned from a two-day trip an hour earlier and was scheduled to attend Paris’s annual book fair at seven. I watched the minutes tick by on an antique brass clock, fearing that the president would give me short shrift. A silver-haired usher dressed in black tails and white gloves, wearing a ceremonial silver chain around his neck, entered the presidential office and left with a tray containing an empty glass. Whenever the time came for my interview—if it came—I expected the usher to escort me in. Instead, at 6:35, Macron, in shirtsleeves, burst forth from the office and greeted me with a firm handshake—though not as firm, I suspect, as the one he clamped on Donald Trump at their first face-to-face meeting.
Macron occupies a vast office, the same one where de Gaulle sat when he founded the Fifth Republic, in 1958. The furnishings are probably much the same as in the general’s day: Louis XVI armchairs upholstered in gold-colored satin, an enormous crystal chandelier, a white marble fireplace, gilded walls adorned with finely painted motifs, floor-to-ceiling gold draperies. But there is at least one thing that was not there during de Gaulle’s presidency: a brushed-steel-and-marble coffee table by French designer Toni Grilo. It is just one of the pieces of modern and contemporary art and design—including works by Picasso, Alechinsky, and Dubuffet—that Macron and his wife, Brigitte, have borrowed from the collections of French museums to enliven the venerable 18th-century palace. As Macron describes the division of labor: “She selects a range of pieces, and we make the final choice.”
Though the president was facing the prospect of crippling protest strikes the following week and preparing to meet with German chancellor Angela Merkel the next day, the thing that was uppermost on his mind that evening was not domestic unrest or geopolitics—but culture. Speaking freely in fluent, lightly accented English, he told me how he came by this passion—his “obsession,” as he puts it—and how it shapes him as a leader.
“Culture was part of my personal education,” he began, “and I would say it’s directly linked to my policy, and it’s part of my emancipation. I was born in Amiens, in the north of France. My parents were doctors at the hospital. And my grandmother had a very important role to me. Through books first, and paintings afterwards, and music—I played piano during many years—music was the best way to escape my day-to-day life. . . . During a large part of my childhood, up to 16 or 18 years old, I have a lot of memories from my readings and music, probably as many as in real life. Some authors, like Stendhal, Gide, and music, obviously from Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, from my personal point of view, it’s my very personal secret garden.”
Now, as president, he says culture is “part of an emancipation project for this country. Because [with culture] you manage to provide feelings, emotions, which can break all the barriers between people, which can completely transform their life, and emancipate them.” What he means by “emancipation” is that he sees some sectors of French society—the poorer immigrant neighborhoods, for example—as being cut off from the broader world of culture. He wants to bridge that divide, though some arts figures and intellectuals such as Alain Mabanckou have criticized him for espousing a kind of haughty colonialism that appropriates immigrant and minority art and subsumes it into a grand “French culture”—an outmoded notion, they argue, that is often elitist, white, and Paris-focused. Macron—who has appointed the French-Moroccan novelist Leïla Slimani to help shepherd his efforts to promote the French language abroad, particularly in Africa—disagrees. “For me culture is part of what you have to do here,” he says, “because you don’t just deal with technicalities. You deal with symbols. You try to speak to the country in depth—its history, its landscape, its future, its threats.”
Symbols are all-important to Macron. For the night of his election last May, for example, he arranged a dramatic mise en scène: while loudspeakers played Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the new president walked alone across the courtyard of the Louvre as spotlights threw his larger-than-life shadow on the façade of the former royal palace. Two months later, he convened a rare joint session of the French Parliament at the Château de Versailles, former residence of Louis XIV, the “Sun King.” In December, he celebrated his 40th birthday with a family weekend at the Château de Chambord, a matchless jewel of Renaissance architecture built by François I. In choosing these stately venues, Macron’s intent was to spotlight the country’s rich cultural heritage—le patrimoine français—even as critics scoffed that the settings reflected his “monarchical” pretensions.
And now he is taking part in another symbolic ritual—across the Atlantic. This month, Macron becomes the first foreign leader to be honored with a state visit to Washington, D.C., since Donald Trump took office. Their relationship did not begin well. At the NATO summit in Brussels last May, Macron pointedly bypassed Trump’s outstretched hand to greet Angela Merkel. When Macron and Trump did shake hands, it was a white-knuckler that went viral on the Internet. (Macron had actually practiced the maneuver after studying videos of his counterpart’s intimidating shake-and-jerk trick.)
Macron, at 40, is a sophisticated and highly educated aesthete who quotes Hegel in his speeches; Trump, 71, is more at home with reality TV. One sleeps four hours a night and, more or less, works the other 20. The other watches four hours of television a day. One married a teacher 24 years his senior. The other married a model 24 years his junior.
On policy questions, they have some sharp differences: Macron has criticized Trump’s decisions to pull out of the Paris agreement on climate change and clamp stiff tariffs on steel imports, as well as his threats to tear up the nuclear deal with Iran. “I have always been very clear and straightforward about our disagreements,” Macron tells me. “It is not because we are allies that we cannot disagree—that is the other way around! Our strong bilateral relations actually enable us to address our divergences in a constructive way.”
In terms of their personal histories, the two presidents have much in common: both are products of the private sector; both were political outsiders elected on their first try; both benefited from a populist rejection of traditional parties; both have authoritarian streaks; both have relentlessly decried what they consider radical Islam; and both, for better or worse, are seeking to carry out their campaign promises.
Macron sealed the improbable friendship by inviting Trump last year to attend the annual July 14 Bastille Day military parade, taking him to visit Napoleon’s tomb, and wining and dining the First Couple in the Eiffel Tower. Two things came out of those encounters: Trump’s desire to have his own military parade, and his reciprocal invitation to host Macron.
For the French president, the trip to Washington may provide a welcome relief from the turmoil he faces at home: recurring rail strikes, Air France walkouts, university campuses occupied by protesting students. As he sits down with Trump, there is much for the two men to talk about: trade, military cooperation, and their responses to terror attacks, such as last month’s assault on a French supermarket. Central to their discussions is the aftermath to this month’s U.S.-French-British missile strike on Syrian chemical weapons facilities. Macron’s decisive support for the joint action may have sealed his role as Trump’s key international ally. In a French TV interview on April 15, Macron made the stunning claim that he had managed to change Trump’s mind about disengaging from Syria. “We have convinced him that it is necessary to stay for the long term,” said Macron. Well, yes and no. The White House responded with an official statement saying: “The U.S. mission has not changed — the President has been clear that he wants U.S. forces to come home as quickly as possible.” And the next day, Macron walked back his claim, asserting that he “never said” the U.S. and France should maintain a perpetual military presence in Syria.
In our interview, which preceded the Syria strike by nearly a month, what Monsieur Macron mainly wanted to talk about was his preoccupation with culture—which is his way of talking about his vision for France. In effect, his focus on the arts is not just personal but strategic: it sets him apart as a leader. Unlike many of his peers, he sees himself as attuned to how culture taps into the potential of the human spirit—and the patterns of history—which, in turn, informs how he hopes to shape the future of his nation and the wider world.
Born in 1977, Macron completed his high-school education at the prestigious Lycée Henri-IV, in Paris. He took an advanced degree in philosophy at the Université Paris Nanterre, studied public policy at the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris (known as Sciences Po), and graduated from the elite École Nationale d’Administration, France’s main breeding ground for government officials.
Along the way, he forged two relationships that profoundly affected what he calls his “destiny.” One was with the philosopher Paul Ricœur, a renowned authority on phenomenology, who became an intellectual mentor. The other was life-changing: while in high school, he fell in love with his theater teacher, Brigitte Trogneux. Although married at the time, with three children, she would eventually marry Macron, in 2007. “There are times in your life when you make vital choices,” she once told an interviewer. “If I had not made this choice, I would have missed out on my life.” Today, they are a close-knit couple with no children of their own, though their beloved black Labrador-griffon mix, Némo, has the run of the palace. (They also keep two hens in the Élysée garden, a gift from farmers attending the Paris agricultural fair last February.)
After working four years as an investment banker, Macron was recruited by Socialist president François Hollande to become his deputy chief of staff. Hollande, who considered the young man his protégé, named him finance minister in 2014. From that lofty perch, Macron made an audacious—some would say treacherous—political calculation. Sensing that Hollande’s unpopularity would torpedo his re-election chances, Macron resigned from his Cabinet post, formed an ad hoc political movement, and launched his own presidential bid. Drawing on political ideas from the left and the right, he benefited from a popular rejection of France’s traditional parties and became the none-of-the-above candidate to whom disenchanted voters flocked. Last May, he trounced the far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, to become the youngest French head of state since Napoleon.
It was an improbable victory for a candidate with no clear political label and no previous electoral experience. And it stunned the political establishment. “We didn’t measure the extent to which voters were fed up,” says Pascal Perrineau, a political-science professor at Sciences Po, “just how much they longed for a new kind of politics. It was a total rejection of the classical political class. Macron is . . . an ex nihilo product of the young Internet and start-up generation.”
Then, in the parliamentary elections following Macron’s victory, his fledgling movement seized a majority of seats, giving the new president a clear mandate to carry out his ambitious program of economic, social, and institutional reforms. In his first 10 months, he has helped recast France’s rigid labor laws, hoping to reduce the chronically high unemployment rate, which now hovers near 9 percent. Other reforms have sought to trim the country’s plethoric civil service, slash the wealth tax, toughen rules on immigration, shrink the size of Parliament, impose term limits on legislators, revamp the sacrosanct high-school diploma (the baccalauréat), and restructure the money-hemorrhaging state railroad, a scheme that has set off widespread strikes.
“I DON’T BELIEVE FOR ONE SECOND IN POLLS,” MACRON SAYS.
Through it all, Macron has returned, again and again, to culture, even in the metaphors he uses. His determination to impose his reforms underscores his intention to be what he calls a “Jupiterian” president (borrowing from ancient mythology)—as in Jupiter, ruler of the gods, the one whose decrees and thunderbolts from the top of Olympus determined the fates of his underlings. There are risks, of course, of overreach. Warned former prime minister Dominique de Villepin, who supported Macron’s election: “Beware of the temptation to assume too much authority. Otherwise you take hits and get worn down.” In point of fact, Macron’s popularity has tumbled sharply since he won 66 percent of the vote a year ago: in March one key poll showed his unfavorability rating to have reached 57 percent. Macron is unmoved. “I don’t believe [for] one second in polls,” he says.
Policy and polls aside, the initiatives closest to Macron’s heart are not the social or economic measures that have sent protesters into the streets but the cultural programs he hopes will inspire and unify France’s fractured society. In March, I watched him preside over a working lunch with 27 heads of French museums. At one point he insisted that they must all work harder to “open up access to culture” and end what he called the “house arrest” of communities that are cut off from it. “It’s a question of national cohesion,” he declared.
John and Jackie Kennedy famously invited highbrow royalty such as cellist Pablo Casals to perform at the White House; the Obamas welcomed Lin-Manuel Miranda, who presented an early rendition of the title song from what would become the Broadway smash Hamilton. Macron is in another league altogether. On his trips to foreign countries and jaunts into the French provinces, he seeks out artists, writers, musicians, and scholars, trying to see the world through their eyes. It was precisely that kind of cultural curiosity that led him to attend last summer’s Rencontres d’Arles, the annual photo festival in the South of France, where he made a point to take in an exhibition featuring the work of Vanity Fair’s principal photographer, Annie Leibovitz. An image-conscious politician as well as an art-lover, Macron was impressed. He later invited Leibovitz to meet with him at the Élysée and, then, to follow him as he went about his workday and ventured forth on one of his cultural sojourns: to the Mediterranean port city of Sète, where he spent time with Pierre Soulages, the 98-year-old painter and sculptor known for his black-on-black canvases.
Macron, as an art connoisseur and de facto arts administrator, has wasted no time in filling up his own managerial canvas. Seconded by Culture Minister Françoise Nyssen, a respected book publisher, the president has launched a raft of measures aimed at what an aide calls “the democratization of culture,” including plans to expand the hours of public libraries, draw up an inventory of the thousands of state-owned châteaux and monuments in need of repair, and promote the French language internationally—la francophonie. One of his boldest projects is the “culture pass,” an innovation that Macron adopted from Italy, which gives each 18-year-old a $620 credit, via a smartphone app, toward theater, museum, concert, and movie tickets, as well as books, videos, and music. The technical kinks are still being worked out—how do you make sure the kids don’t blow the whole wad on video games?—but pilot programs will commence this September.
Claudia Ferrazzi, a former deputy administrator of the Louvre, is Macron’s adviser for cultural policy. She explains that his approach to culture has a threefold objective: to promote the international influence and prestige of French culture; to help Macron immerse himself in the distinctive ambience of various corners of France by having close ties to those in the arts community; and to reach out to “the 25 to 30 percent of the French population that has no access to culture because they have no desire for it. The goal is to win [them] over by diversifying what we offer, by being less elitist and creating a bridge to this population.”
Internationally, Macron sees French culture as a vector of what he calls, in English, “soft power.” On all of his foreign trips, he brings along French writers, artists, or filmmakers, and seeks contacts with cultural figures from the host countries. During their recent trip to India, for example, he and Brigitte visited the studio of multi-media artist Subodh Gupta. In China, they met with contemporary artists in a private gallery. (In fact, his office reached out to Vanity Fair for names of American cultural figures with whom he might interact before, during, and after his American tour.) And, when traveling at home, he’ll often connect with a local artist, hoping to use each of their particular prisms as a way to appreciate the nuances of their region and worldview.
At one point, I mention to Macron that in the postwar world it is American culture—via Hollywood, Coca-Cola, and now Silicon Valley—that dominates. Macron takes issue: “We are very much present and not under the domination of the U.S. culture, even if this culture is obviously very much present, much more than one century ago. The French always managed to preserve, and much more than that, to develop their own imaginations and their own symbols, their own landscape.” He adds: “One of the key features of the French mind-set, the French génie, is probably this permanent obsession to make something very special and universal. There are very few countries obsessed by universality, with this obsession—probably for some people, this pretension—to speak on behalf of the whole of humanity.”
Over coffee on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, Frédéric Mitterrand, nephew of the former president and himself an ex-minister of culture, puts Macron’s views in historical context. “In the French tradition,” he says, “culture is the domain of the president. Culture under de Gaulle was de Gaulle. Under Mitterrand, it was Mitterrand. The republic inherited the monarchical tradition and retained aspects of it. François I received da Vinci. Louis XIV’s only friends were Racine and Molière.” The reason Macron put so much emphasis on the arts during his campaign, Mitterrand says, is that “even the French who don’t go to the theater or museums or cinema expect the head of state to be cultured.”
Macron looks the part: youthful without seeming juvenile, long sideburns, intense azure gaze. He favors well-cut dark suits, generally gray, black, or dark blue, and dark solid ties. His shirts are white or pale blue, with French cuffs—what else?—and discreet cuff links. He radiates a quiet elegance, without flash. No matter how long his day, how many hands he has shaken or meetings he has held, he never appears to sweat or show any sign of fatigue. I was exhausted and jet-lagged after following him around the provinces for two days. But Macron always seems to have emerged from a box, wrapped in silk paper.
Implicit in this attention to appearance are the seeds of a sort of personality cult. Like Barack Obama, who is in some ways his model, Macron is eager to oblige selfie requests. The routine is always the same. The president will take the person’s cell phone in his own right hand, hold it high in the air, grin, and shoot. It is a way of winning people over, but the countless snapshots he takes are also part of an image-building campaign in which photography plays a central role. Soazig de la Moissonnière, the president’s photographer who took his official portrait, accompanies Macron on all his trips, along with a video team, and follows him through the halls of the palace while he works. “The Élysée’s Facebook page publishes images of the president’s trips almost immediately,” says Laurence Benhamou, a reporter for Agence France-Press.
While image-building is an essential part of any president’s playbook, Macron instinctively understands the power of a photo or video to counter the negative images thrown up by critics and the media, which sometimes portray him as a product of the privileged Parisian elite, locked in his ivory tower. Laurent Wauquiez, the newly installed leader of the conservative Les Républicains party, has made headlines with his charge that Macron “hates the provinces.” When I bring this up, Macron bristles. “You know,” he says, leaning forward on his gold satin canapé and fixing me with an ice-blue stare, “it’s normal that the opponents and the press always try to pin a feature on you. . . . From the very beginning of my political career, they always try to put me in a box. I was first a banker, then I was in a ‘bubble,’ then I was the ‘President of the Rich,’ and now ‘President of the Big Cities.’ I don’t care!”—he shrugs and his voice rises in pitch—“It’s not my problem if that’s their obsession.”
Nonetheless, Macron does have a problem with the countryside, and he knows it. In the first round of presidential voting last May, Marine Le Pen outpolled Macron in the rural areas of France. Part of his challenge is that Macron has no real party behind him. The centrist movement he created is an eclectic group with little or no political experience and no nationwide structure. “Macron won a top-down victory,” says Sciences Po’s Pascal Perrineau. “Now he has to create a movement down below. . . . He has a certain technocratic arrogance. He knows he has a problem with regional France. His trips to the countryside serve to change his image, put some mud under his shoes.” In sum, he asserts, “Macron needs to understand what your [Speaker of the House] Tip O’Neill knew: ‘All politics is local.’ ”
Macron, in truth, is not averse to the idea that something of the monarchical spirit lingers beneath the forms of the republic. “I wrote two years ago that we were still kind of a monarchy, so to speak, where the king was killed but the symbol remained,” he tells me. “The symbol is still very strong in this country, and that’s on the president’s side, because you need someone to decide for the country. And that’s the presidential role. And that’s what is very important to understand, this function—[the fact that your role is] to decide. You have to accept not to be loved or liked by your people sometimes, because that’s not [the role of a president]. . . . But you always have to be in direct contact with them because that’s what is needed to take good decisions.”
It would be a mistake to underestimate Macron’s ability to charm his countrymen through such “direct contact.” On TV he can appear stiff and pedantic. But in person he is a charismatic figure. As the novelist Emmanuel Carrère noted in a Guardian profile of Macron late last year, “He could seduce a chair.” That much was apparent as I accompanied him on a swing through the west-central Touraine region. He started in the city of Tours, where he visited a vocational-training center to underscore his support of apprenticeship programs, then moved on to an elementary school in the rural village of Rilly-sur-Vienne, and finally to a lycée in the town of Loches. At every stop, he spent hours talking to students, teachers, parents, and local officials, asking questions, explaining his programs, and especially listening. At one stage, a throng of students at the Lycée Thérèse Planiol burst into Beatlemania squeals when he appeared and gleefully chanted the president’s nickname: “Ma-nu, Ma-nu, Ma-nu!”
But it is the naysayers who best engage his attention. “He likes to wander off-script and wade into the crowd,” says Cédric Pietralunga, who covers the president for the daily Le Monde. “If he sees anyone who opposes him, he will go right up to them and confront them and try to convince them that he is right.”
Macron tells me he genuinely enjoys pressing the flesh. “Yeah, you understand a lot,” he says. “You listen, you learn. Because you have direct contact. First, you have the feeling of the people. You feel fear, anxiety, enthusiasm, a lot of emotions. For me, that’s the best poll. You feel the people when they come, and when angry people come, that’s a good signal, because they wait for something....You need a mixed crowd because the country is mixed. And secondly, you feel if they listen to you or not.” He pauses, then completes his thought: “When you explain, with humility and in very concrete terms, they understand.”
Macron returns to the subject of his state visit and his “very personal relationship” with Trump. “We have developed a good level of trust and respect,” he notes. “We talk on the phone on a regular basis.” During Trump’s visit to Paris last year, the leaders discussed “challenging issues such as trade and climate change. Donald Trump made very clear that his priority was to fulfill the promise he had made to the people who elected him. I respect that. I do the same in France. However, we have no ‘Planet B,’ and I want to maintain the highest level of global mobilization on this crucial issue of climate change. That was the purpose of the One Planet Summit in Paris last December, in which plenty of Americans participated.
“I appreciate the forthright conversations I have with President Trump as they help us understand each other,” he continues. “Whether it be on the Iran deal or on trade, I believe we can actually reach a common ground. Both France and the United States want to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb and wish to put an end to distorting trade practices. . . . These talks take place in the context of the unique and long-lasting alliance between our two countries. This strong bilateral bond is key: France is the United States’ oldest ally. We will always stand side by side.”
Macron professes to be especially gratified by the invitation to address a joint session of Congress, a rare honor for a foreign leader. But he also confides that he was a little disappointed that the constraints of a Washington-centered visit would prevent him from having direct contact with what he calls “the real America.”
“Obviously I will not have time to make my Easy Rider trip to get in depth into the U.S. I love this road movie [genre], by the way, in literature or in cinema, where you go inside the country.”
“You should come to my hometown, New Orleans,” I remark.
“N’yawlins,” he replies with a grin. “You think so? That’s a good idea. You have the Cajuns. That’s a very special America.”