In his first interview with American journalists inside the presidential Elysée Palace, President Emmanuel Macron sat down with TIME on Nov. 7 for a wide-ranging interview.
On the six-month anniversary of his stunning election win last May, Macron spoke to TIME Editor Edward Felsenthal and Paris correspondent Vivienne Walt about President Trump, terrorism, Europe’s identity crisis, the need to transform France and his unconventional marriage.
Relaxed and cordial, and sipping on an espresso and speaking in English, Macron was eager to outline his ideas for the world in detail. Even his dog Nemo wandered in and sat obediently, while Macron joked that the Labrador retriever-Griffon hound, rescued from a shelter, surely had no idea how lucky he was to be living in the ornate 300-year-old seat of power.
By contrast, Macron knows he is in a prime spot.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
TIME: We wanted to ask you first about this morning’s news about your climate summit in December. You’ve invited a hundred world leaders to Paris. But not President Trump. Does this mean that your plan to convince him to rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change is not going that well?
President Macron: I made it very clear from the very beginning that there is no renegotiation of the Paris Agreement. Because he cannot renegotiate with more than one hundred eighty or 190 countries. And it’s very important to deliver the message and to show the strong evidence of the fact that Paris Agreement is still active. And that everybody will deliver following the initial commitment.
When you look at the current trends, we will not meet the assumptions made for this agreement. And we are definitely making the reforms too slowly. That’s why we decided in France to accelerate a few weeks ago, with a new climate plan. All the coal plants will be closed. We will close what we call thermic activity. And we will stop exploiting new hydrocarbons and oil and gas activities in France and overseas, especially Guyana and so on. Nobody has a comparable commitment. For me, one of the main achievements of the December summit is to show, look, here we are. Even if one of the big players decided not to follow up at this stage, we can be here.
You mentioned when you were in New York for the U.N. General Assembly that one approach to bring President Trump back into the climate fold might be, as you put it, to find a solution where he can be the leader of something new on it. Do you still see that as possible?
If he wants to take a new initiative to go further I would be very happy. But I just say what is unacceptable is to deliver speeches without any deeds and any reality. When you are committed, for instance, to reduce CO2 emissions, you have to implement a consistent policy in your country. That’s what we are doing.
It’s not only climate that divides you and President Trump however, of course. Before this interview your staff said to me that you did not want to be seen as the anti-Trump.
I confirm that, because both of us are duly elected by our voters. So I do respect the United States. I do respect U.S. voters. And I’m not here to judge or to say, I’m the opponent to anybody. I mean it doesn’t make sense. Second we have a big and a long history together. And each time the U.S. needs a partner for freedom, even its creation and its existence, they found France. Each time France needed a partner, an ally, to be free, to fight against terror or fight against invasions, we found the U.S. So we have this historic link.
And it’s much stronger and much more important than the current presidents on both sides. Having said that, I have a very strong relationship with not just the U.S. but President Trump on security, counterterrorism, and a lot of topics. And I do believe that we have a very good personal relationship. He came here for the 14th of July and we had very good discussions. And we have some disagreements. I think that’s a mistake not to follow up on this agreement. There is no planet B, as I always repeat. So I would say to him, fine, you disagree with that. But what’s your plan B? I don’t know your plan B. I think that’s a big mistake for a new generation and the upcoming generations.
You also disagree on the Iran nuclear agreement, which Trump wants to renegotiate.
The deal negotiated in 2015 is a pretty good one. When I ask my experts, could we have more than that or a better situation, they say no. They say no.
I am not naïve. I’m not saying that everything is perfectly fine with Iran. But I just look at the map and the current situation. In Middle East and Asia we have a lot of imbalances, a lot of uncertainties. We have terrorist groups, we have a crisis situation in Syria, a very difficult situation in Iraq as well. And Iran is part of this map. And I do believe that the [nuclear] deal, the JCPOA, [negotiated by the E.U., U.S., and the U.N.] concluded in July 2015 is the best possible deal regarding Iran.
And once again, I just said [to President Trump], ‘What’s your other option? What do you propose? If you want to stop any relation with Iran regarding nuclear activity, you will create a new North Korea.’ Because it’s exactly what we experienced with North Korea. And suddenly you will wake up in ten to twelve years time without any control, but having the nuclear weapon. I don’t want to have that. If you stop the 2015 agreement, what’s your other option? To launch war? To attack Iran? I think it would be crazy in the region.
Are there alternatives?
We need two additional points. And I would be very happy to have President Trump taking the initiatives on precisely these new items.
We need to better frame ballistic activities of Iran. When you look at the situation in Saudi Arabia and the bomb intercepted coming from Yemen, that’s part of this ballistic activity of Iran in the region, which is not covered by the deal. So we should negotiate a new series of criteria and a new treaty with Iran to stop their ballistic activities in the region.
And the second point is the containment of the Iranian presence in the whole region. When you look at their role in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Yemen, they destabilize a lot of people and the whole region. We have to speak with them very openly about this presence.
I’m sure you’ve been following the investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. election. I’m interested in what you make of that investigation so far, and also what France is doing to address similar interference here?
I think it’s a very serious problem. And we should not underestimate the potential effects of such interference. Both the U.S. and France are open democracies with very strong civil society and a lot of debates with free media. And we are happy with that. And with a lot of digital activities. And you have some other countries, and some of them are our partners, and some of them are very important leaders. And Russia is one of them. I respect them and we have very important discussions with them. But they don’t share exactly the same values and the same rules of the game, I would say. And when they develop propaganda in other countries, when they develop potential activities in those other countries it is very serious. Because it could create a bias in our presidential or in our campaigns, whatever the election could be. I had a very direct discussion with President Putin about such a situation. I expressed myself very clearly about that.
President Trump speaks a lot about fake news on his Twitter account. Do you follow him?
I have to confess something which could perhaps appear very sane from your point of view. I don’t tweet myself. And I don’t follow myself. Because it’s not compatible with the kind of distance you need to govern and to preside. To be president, you need some distance from events, from the permanent flows of news and reactions. I have to confess I’ve heard of some news about Mr. Trump’s Twitter account, but I don’t follow and I don’t tweet myself.
You don’t get on Twitter every day to see what he’s tweeting?
Not every day. No. When you look at Twitter, when you look at reactions of people, you get something from the reality and from the perception of your people and people all around the place. But I think that when you are in the situation to decide on your own and when you have the responsibility of lot of big policies and a lot of people, you cannot react permanently on this kind of media or on any media. You need time, you need distance, you need to cross-check information, to think about what you should react to or not.
And that’s why Twitter is not always totally adapted to this kind of job. It’s fine for your private life, but the problem is you don’t have any more private life when you’re President.
One issue that you and President Trump are both dealing with is terrorism. How do you explain French citizens fighting with jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq?
We had a few years ago indeed hundreds of French people leaving the country to join these places. Why? Because there was something wrong in the society. And it’s still the case because I think Western societies are experiencing a big crisis, a crisis in democracies, with the inability of a lot of countries to integrate all the people, with the fact that we left the floor to some jihadists manipulating them. And playing with the vast frustrations and importing tensions of the Middle East in our societies.
It is a mix of a big crisis in the Muslim world, a creation of new tensions in the Muslim world, with the radicalization of people who believe the elimination of non-Muslims and non-fundamental Muslims is de facto the purpose of their life, and the fact that there is a lack of dream, a lack of mobility, a lack of new projects in our Western societies.
Today, we don’t have so many people trying to leave the country to join them in Syria and Iraq. Why? Because they are losing the war there … and all these people coming back, from Syria especially, are put in jail.
But you have some people becoming terrorists in your country [the U.S.] even without having had any direct contact with them, but just because suddenly something happens in their minds. Which is once again a mix of definitely a terrorist-slash-religious phenomenon. I don’t want to reduce that to religion. But I don’t want to exclude the fact that there is a link with religion. And with social and economic difficulties, and sometimes with mental diseases and illness.
This seems like a good moment to ask you about Europe, which I know is something very passionate for you. You overcame a populist nationalist movement to win the presidency. Plus, your close partner in Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is in a pretty weakened state electorally. So does this make you the preeminent leader of Europe?
The classical French answer should be yes. Because a classical French model is to become a leader, from Napoleon to de Gaulle and others. But I think it would be a mistake. The strength of our Europe today is to preserve decades of unity, freedom, peace, without hegemony. And that’s brand new. Until the Second World War ,the history for centuries of Europe was a series of wars, and atoms of hegemony. The whole story of Europe is about a series of wars, trying to dominate the others. What we managed to build right after the Second World War is unique.
The space of freedom and peace allowing prosperity, having 70 years of peace, is brand new. It never existed in Europe. I’m very attached to this. So I don’t want to be the leader of Europe. I want to be one of the leaders in this new generation of leaders, totally convinced that our future is a European future.
As for Chancellor Merkel, she won the election with 33% after 12 years in office. She’s a great leader. She’s strong. And she defeated the extreme right. She will be part of this redefinition of Europe.
Can you explain your faith in this “European future?”?
This balance between freedom and social justice, liberty and equality, is unique in Europe. In the U.S., you have a strong attachment to freedom, but with less attachment to equality than in Europe. You have a very strong attachment to the market economy in China, but not the same relationship with freedom. This mix of capital market, progress, equality and liberty is the DNA of Europe. And that’s why I think we need Europe if we don’t want to submit ourselves to the rule of the others.
And when you look at the map if you want to have the ability to design the role of this new century and this new world, we have to team up and work closely together. If I want to tax CO2 when products and goods enter to our geographies, or if I want to be efficient in terms of renewables, I have to work and act at the European level, not just at the national. If I want to be efficient on migration, I need a European organization, because that’s a global phenomenon. If you want to act efficiently against terrorism, you have to build your intelligence at the European level.
So everything at stake is not to be dealt with at the national level. You need European action. The rationale of my commitment for Europe is a reaction to what you mentioned: The increase of extremists and nationalistic movements in different countries in Europe.
Your office said during the campaign that without significant structural change, you could have France and Greece leaving the EU. Can that happen fast enough, that change?
I think so, I hope so. I mean first of all, my point was to say, if you don’t move forward, if you don’t put on the table a new ambition, you leave the floor to those who doubt about Europe. Which is a history of the past decade. Nobody dared propose new things about Europe. I mean we had a tired elite. It was a mix between tired and cynical people. If we have ambition you can attract people. That’s why I decided at the Sorbonne a few weeks ago to propose this new roadmap: sovereignty, unity, and democracy. With a dozen very concrete proposals on the table.
You have to resume the deep philosophy of Europe. That is how I defeated Marine Le Pen. And that is why my strong recommendation in Europe to all the others is to say, don’t be shy. If you are shy about Europe you will be killed by the extremes. Because they are not shy about their anti-European feeling.
You have to explain to your young people, Europe is about growth and investment, it would be about how to teach you, how to help you to travel, to know much better the other young people in this continent to learn other languages, to learn other cultures, to be more equipped to deal with this new world.
So I think it depends on ourselves. The worst would be just to consider that Europe as a club where you fix short term crises. That is no more the case. Our generation will not have the luxury just to manage Europe. We will have to refound it.
I see you have two photographs on your desk: De Gaulle and your wife Brigitte. The entire world it seems is completely intrigued by your marriage, in particular the 24-year age gap. You have been asked to address it repeatedly. Why do you think that is?
It’s my life. That’s it. And I think that when you decide to run for such a campaign, you owe your people the truth. So I very bluntly and I would say naturally explained why. And my situation and the presence of my wife and my personal balance, I would say. So it’s for me just something natural. That’s it. That’s my life for decades. And I think that in the current environment you have to explain to people that this is my life, my personal life, my intimate life. Not to expose my intimacy, because I never speak and never comment about my intimacy, but just to say here it is.
And my wife is very important as she is not just my wife but my best friend. And somebody very important to me. And she’s here and she has always been here. And that’s it. Not to have an official role, because in France we have very different tradition from the U.S. But she has a presence, people are very attached to her and her presence. But she’s not in charge of public policy, she is not elected by people. But she has a symbolic role I would say as being my wife. And she’s very much important because of our relation. That is it.
Do you have a political credo?
I always act with convictions. I would say I decided very early de facto two things: Never accepting something I don’t understand. Never accepting I would stay in a situation where you’re uncomfortable with. So that’s why when I started to be involved in politics and I experienced strange situations with incomprehensible rules, I decided to react and to launch my own movement and to say, the current organization of the political world in France is not relevant any more. It was very naïve, but it was following this very first principle.
My second principle of action was not to act for people’s judgement. And not to consider that you act to be loved by people or because of what they have in mind or what is good or wrong for them. It was my guidance for my personal life — I decided on my own what I considered was fair, good. Even when the current convention was not consistent with my choice. And I did the same in politics and I still do the same. I listen to people very carefully, I take a lot of consultation. I follow and respect the judgements of people, and especially some people I respect. But at the end of the day when I take a decision, when I act, it’s not to be pleasant, I would say.
And I think if you follow these two principles and these two guidances, you can act.
Your approval rate has plunged since you came into office. Does that sting?
I was very popular at the beginning of my mandate because I didn’t do anything for the very first week after my election. The worst thing is to lose popularity without acting or without being efficient. But if you act and if it’s because of your actions that you lose popularity, fine.
There is a lack of trust in politics. Some think that even if I take strong and difficult decisions, that they will not provide any effects. You need time to get these effects. That’s why I decided to frontload a lot of tough decisions. I presented them and explained them very clearly and loudly during the campaign. I organized my campaign around these ideas. I didn’t take the country by surprise. No, I delivered exactly the plan. So that’s it.
Can France assume the leadership role you’ve outlined in Europe and around the world if it doesn’t overhaul its economy and labor laws the way you’ve set out to?
I think everything is interrelated. I believe that France has a voice and a role to play in the current environment, both in Europe but in multilateralism and in the global situation. But this role cannot be played, and your voice is not even respected and listened if you don’t perform at home.
We have to strengthen our economy, we have to change in depth the DNA of our economy to be leader in this new economy of innovation, talent, and competence and disruption. And I think we have everything to succeed in this new economy. Entrepreneur is a French word. Innovation is part of our DNA. So we have everything to succeed in this new environment if we deliver in changing some of our rules and something about the mindset of our society.