Adam Plowright

Interview with Ismael Emelien: the man behind Macron’s rise

Interview with Ismael Emelien: the man behind Macron's rise
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Behind the biggest recent upsets in Western politics lurk two influential advisors: one a scruffy far-right American ideologue who has become a household name; the other a clean-cut Frenchman just over 30 who has always avoided the limelight – until now.

Without Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s campaign boss in the final stages of the election, the US president might be promoting golf resorts and picking fights on Twitter full-time now, not running the United States. While in France, Emmanuel Macron’s extraordinary election victory in 2017, six months after Trump’s, would not have been possible without the discreet work of Ismael Emelien.

Trump and Macron are often portrayed as the ying and yang of world politics, the Trump and 'anti-Trump', but there is symmetry in their success. As men – in age, temperament, and politics – they couldn’t be more different. But they were both carried to power on the same currents churning Western politics. Both ran as radical anti-elitists who could shield their countries from globalisation.

There’s strange mimicry too in the lives of their top campaign advisors. Bannon’s time at the White House lasted only seven months  and he has now struck out to try to encourage a global awakening of nationalist parties. Emelien, after nearly two years at Macron’s side at the Elysee, has just quit the presidential staff and has joined what he frames as the battle between his 'progressive' camp and Bannon’s 'nationalist-populists'.

'We found ourselves very isolated,' Emelien told me about his time on Macron’s staff. 'We noticed that the populists had succeeded in coming together, even though we are the internationalists, the multilaterialists. It’s paradoxical. We want to change that.' His opening play is a book, a sort of handbook for progressives, written with another young advisor to Macron, David Amiel, who has also just left the president’s team in a major shake up. Both, now aged 32 and 26 respectively, had worked with Macron since his days as economy minister.

But it was Emelien who always had the president’s ear. He was chief among the 'Macron boys' – the tech-savvy and ambitious political operators in their 30s and 40s who helped the former investment banker launch his grassroots En Marche movement. He met Macron in 2012-2013 when Emelien, working for a left-of-centre think-tank, would take notes of brainstorming sessions with Macron, who was an economic advisor to former president Francois Hollande.

Educated at Sciences Po, like Macron, Emelien is tall and unfailingly polite. He has avoided journalists until now, preferring to operate in the shadows. With his black-rimmed glasses and haircut, he would not look out of place at the giant Station F tech start-up incubator in Paris, which is where he and Macron could easily have ended up. The two of them were set to launch an online learning company together in 2014 before Macron was unexpectedly named economy minister.

Emelien is convinced their political experience carries lessons for others trying to follow in the French president’s footsteps by challenging traditional parties from the centre-ground, rather than from the fringes of the far-right or hard-left. He’s clear that the book, actively supported by the president, is also an attempt to define 'Macronism'.

'Firstly, we think it’s possible to start from nothing everywhere. The barriers to entry in politics are a lot less than they were, particularly thanks to new technology' he explains, before reminding me that En Marche began with a simple website and a database of members.

'And we think our analysis is valid for a lot of countries: both on the collapse of the traditional right-left division and in terms of the socio-economic drivers behind what we call the "frustrated society,"' he added.

For Emelien, the idea of the ‘frustrated society’ explains the anti-elite anger roiling so many democracies, which draws its strength from under-performing public education systems, the blocked careers of the under-privileged, and the success and supposed happiness of life’s winners being constantly splashed across social media.

'Put simply, in the world we live in, we’re told everything is possible for you to succeed – "if you want it, you can do it" – but the reality is that a lot of people don’t succeed despite their efforts and their abilities,' he says.

The response from populists is to blame others – immigrants, the European Union – and seek protection behind national borders. Progressives need to stand on a platform that he and Amiel say has three main components: a focus on extending individual economic opportunities and breaking business monopolies ('maximising our possibilities,' they call it); a belief in collective action, particularly through the European Union; and a bottom-up approach to politics involving civil society.

I put it to him that the problem of defining the fight as a 'progressive versus nationalist' binary, as Macron has repeatedly done, is that once progressives fall out of favour, voters see the fringes as the alternative. It is why the title of my book referred to the 'risk' of Macron: that by re-polarising French politics, he might ultimately help usher in the populists.

'In the presidential election in France, we didn’t design it that way, we didn’t choose who was our main enemy,' Emelien says. For more than a year, polls had shown that Marine Le Pen would make it into the final round run-off of the election, he says. 'We agree that it’s dangerous, but to get out of this situation, you need a strategy that takes the populists seriously,' Amiel adds.

But does Macron know the way forward? His star, once bright, has dimmed. Derided as the 'president of the rich' by his opponents, he is struggling to demonstrate that his pro-business medicine for France is producing results. And the revolt over living standards by 'yellow vest' protesters since November last year has been a humiliation.

'We didn’t see it coming, but no one saw it coming,' Emelien says of the protests. Even some of Macron’s supporters would beg to differ, seeing the former investment banker’s often arrogant and top-down leadership style and seeming indifference to the poor as fuelling the anger seen in small-town and rural France.

Emelien believes the crisis resulted from problems of 'timing and delivery', meaning they focused too heavily on spurring business and investment in the first part of Macron’s term and that many reforms, such as a loosening of French labour law, are yet to produce results. 'We’re in the process of correcting,' he says of new tax cuts for low-income workers and a rise in the minimum wage.

But what of the two other major issues fuelling the rise of the fringes, namely immigration and economic inequality?  Do so-called 'progressives' have an answer? Emelien believes in the economic case for immigration, but says higher demands must be made on newcomers, echoing similar views expressed recently by Hillary Clinton and Tony Blair.

'What progressives should defend is an obligation to integrate, and that a desire to integrate should be the determining factor in whether someone is granted nationality,' he says. 'We’re clear that there is a problem around the issue of identity in all Western countries, which is posed by immigration. It’s a reality that it would be almost criminal to ignore.'

And on inequality, an issue that unites Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the left, Emelien views it as more of a problem in the UK and the US than most continental European countries. And he believes the focus should be on improving education and the fight against sexual, gender and racial discrimination, rather than on higher taxes for the billionaire class. 'We need to tackle injustices more than inequalities,' he says. The failure to appreciate how income inequality is a part of his 'frustrated society' seems a blindspot, which perhaps explains some of Macron’s domestic problems.

Like Bannon, who has found his advances resisted by far-right groups in Europe, Emelien’s attempt to influence and bring together like-minded politicians internationally will face similar difficulties. There are serious limits to how much any national political experience can be transposed across borders. But at a time when the centre-left, and the political mainstream more broadly, is looking for ways to restore its credibility with voters, his contribution should be welcomed.

Adam Plowright is the author of The French Exception. Emmanuel Macron: The Extraordinary Rise and Risk.