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The Calculated Rise OF Macron -- WSJ

29 Apr 2017 6:32 am

Frenchman acquired skills, connected with elite
By Stacy Meichtry and William Horobin 

PARIS -- At the height of the financial crisis, Rothschild & Cie. assigned one of its veteran bankers to groom a new hire named Emmanuel Macron.

Mr. Macron had no experience in banking. Instead, he had powerful mentors who had recommended him to Rothschild as a danseur mondain -- literally, high-society dancer -- who could drum up business.

"He was identified as being a very singular person with lots of contacts, " recalls Cyrille Harfouche, the veteran assigned to shepherd Mr. Macron. By the time Mr. Macron left Rothschild four years later, he had negotiated a multibillion-dollar deal and become one of its youngest-ever partners.

Mr. Macron's banking career followed a playbook that now has upended the political order and placed the French presidency within his grasp, with a final-round election against Marine Le Pen on May 7. Mr. Macron made friends in high places who propelled him to ever-higher echelons of French society. Along the way he acquired a repertoire of skills, from piano and philosophy to acting and finance, that helped impress future mentors.

The approach allowed Mr. Macron to shortcut the traditional political path. Rather than run for office in his hometown, gradually building a constituency, he proceeded straight to Paris, where he became an expert on banking and European technocracy. He acquired a mastery of arcane regulations, from the 3,334-page French national labor code to the plumbing of the European Union's single market, that made him a valuable potential aide to politicians being whipsawed by the EU's complexity and the gyrations of global markets.

Now the future of France, and in considerable measure of the EU itself, could be in the hands of a 39-year-old who was little-known to much of the world until this year. His duel with Ms. Le Pen over France's place in Europe has redrawn French politics, sweeping aside mainstream candidates and the traditional left-right divide they represent.

Mainstream French parties have called on their supporters to rally behind Mr. Macron in the contest against Ms. Le Pen, the far-right nationalist who would withdraw France from the EU's common currency.

A Macron win would put Europe's second-largest economy under an outspoken EU supporter who wants to establish a command center for the Continent's defense, create a border police force, loosen France's rigid labor rules, cut payroll taxes and reduce French public-sector employment by 120,000.

Mr. Macron is a political pragmatist who has long cast himself as an outsider. He was musician to his banking colleagues and a capitalist inside a Socialist government before squaring off with nationalists as a pro-Europe candidate.

Interviews with Mr. Macron over two years, as well as with campaign aides, government officials and friends, reveal a man who set his sights on high office early, showing a willingness to defy convention in pursuit of that goal. That drive ultimately set Mr. Macron on a collision course with the one mentor who elevated him to the senior ranks of government, President François Hollande.

Born to a family of doctors in the northern city of Amiens, Mr. Macron met his future wife, Brigitte Trogneux, while he was in high school and she was his drama coach. She was more than 20 years his senior, a member of a prominent business family of chocolatiers, and married.

The teenager spent hours with Ms. Trogneux to adapt a play by the Italian playwright Eduardo de Filippo about a clever actor who tries to outsmart a powerful local official. She cast him in the lead role. "We worked a lot together," he recalled.

Mr. Macron's parents sent him to finish high school in Paris, but he remained in touch with Ms. Trogneux. A couple of years later, she broke off her marriage and moved to Paris to live with Mr. Macron.

By then he was making his way into rarefied circles. He studied philosophy and became the assistant of Paul Ricoeur, one of France's best-known philosophers. He enrolled in the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, the elite academy that trains French ministers, central bankers and presidents.

Graduating near the top of his class, Mr. Macron earned a post in the Inspectorate General of Finance, a corps of state auditors that serves as a finishing school for the establishment. He cultivated powerful alumni such as French power broker Alain Minc and former Prime Minister Michel Rocard.

One alumnus he courted recalled sitting down with Mr. Macron for the first time and asking him where he saw himself in 30 years. "President of the Republic," he replied, according to this person.

Mr. Macron remembered the exchange differently -- that he simply said he was open to a career in politics.

The alumnus advised Mr. Macron to avoid conventional politics, saying it wouldn't guarantee him financial security, and helped line up a job for him at Rothschild, a venerable investment bank that straddles the worlds of French finance and politics.

Mr. Macron impressed his bosses by seeking to do more than open doors. Mr. Harfouche said Mr. Macron wanted to learn "the hard way." So he was given a crash course in the number-crunching and financial modeling that goes into mergers and acquisitions. Word also spread of his piano virtuosity. "He could have been an artist," Mr. Harfouche said.

While at the Inspectorate, Mr. Macron had worked as an assistant to an economic committee of eminences grises that included Nestlé SA Chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe. Mr. Macron began meeting with the executive regularly, pitching an acquisition target: Pfizer Inc.'s baby-food business.

Ultimately he persuaded Nestlé about the acquisition as a way to boost its presence in China, one of the few baby-food markets where the Swiss company wasn't a market leader. When a bidding war broke out with French rival Danone SA, Mr. Macron scrambled to clinch the $11.8 billion Nestlé purchase.

The deal made Mr. Macron, by then a partner at Rothschild, a wealthy man. It also made him an adviser sought after in French political circles, including Mr. Hollande, the Socialist Party leader who was then challenging French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Mr. Hollande hired Mr. Macron as an aide, dispatching him to reassure investors and business leaders nervous about the candidate's plan for a 75% tax on incomes above EUR1 million.

After winning the presidency in 2012, Mr. Hollande brought Mr. Macron to the Élysée Palace as deputy chief of staff. As business leaders threatened to leave France, citing the tax policy, Mr. Macron warned his boss in an email that he risked turning France into "Cuba without the sun."

Mr. Hollande relented, scaling back his contentious tax plan and introducing some corporate tax cuts dubbed the "responsibility pact." The U-turn enhanced the reputation of his pro-business consigliere among members of the Socialist Party's frustrated free-market wing who had flocked to Mr. Macron's side.

Among them was Gérard Collomb, a senator and mayor of Lyon. "I was quite on edge about Mr. Hollande's policies, so [Mr. Macron] dined with me and some lawmakers to try and calm things down," Mr. Collomb said.

Other interventions followed. When Mr. Hollande's left-wing economy minister, Arnaud Montebourg, tried to scuttle a General Electric Co. bid for Alstom SA's turbine business, Mr. Macron stepped in and brokered GE's $17 billion purchase.

With the wind in his sails, Mr. Macron abruptly quit as an Hollande aide in the summer of 2014, saying he wanted to try starting his own business. Mr. Hollande hosted an elaborate Élysée Palace send-off at which the president quipped in a toast that whenever he travelled abroad, people remarked: "Ah! You work with Emmanuel Macron."

Mr. Macron responded with a serious speech, urging the assembled politicians to overhaul the country.

Weeks later, Mr. Hollande ousted Mr. Montebourg over the economy minister's opposition to spending cuts -- and offered Mr. Macron the job.

Mr. Macron didn't immediately say yes. He demanded a mandate to overhaul the economy.

"You will be here to reform," Mr. Hollande replied.

Four days into the new post, Mr. Macron invited Sigmar Gabriel, then Germany's economy minister and vice chancellor, to a private dinner in Paris. They agreed to commission a report from economists that could serve as a blueprint for a grand bargain Mr. Macron envisioned to revive the EU's fortunes: Germany would provide stimulus by spending more, and France would become a European model of economic rectitude by paring back its generous labor protections.

"From the start I proposed a European New Deal -- undertake reform, but at the same time persuade Europe to invest more," Mr. Macron said in an interview last year shortly before declaring his run for the presidency.

In his view, France's job market was hemmed in by a rigid educational system that set young people on a narrow career trajectory and by labor rules that discouraged companies from hiring them. The result was an unemployment rate of nearly 10%, and twice that among the young.

Mr. Macron, as economy minister, crafted a bill to streamline hiring and firing procedures, slash red tape and permit more shops to open on Sunday. The contentious proposals, dubbed the Macron Law, thrust him into the limelight as unions organized large street protests.

Mr. Hollande, fearing the bill would fail in Parliament, to the embarrassment of his government, didn't put it to a vote. He instead stripped out key provisions that would ease hiring and firing restrictions, then enacted the bill by decree.

That sowed the seeds of Mr. Macron's future rebellion. Interviewed by The Wall Street Journal later on that day in early 2015, Mr. Macron was asked whether he had ever harbored presidential ambitions.

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April 29, 2017 02:32 ET (06:32 GMT)

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