Le Kid: That was how the news magazine L’Express described France’s new President on its cover just hours after Emmanuel Macron’s victory on May 7. The headline captured just how thoroughly Macron’s lightning ascent from Rothschild banker to Economy Minister to leader of the world’s sixth biggest economy–all by the age of 39–has put the country’s gray-haired political grandees out to pasture.
In a stunning generational shift, millions of young French ditched the Socialist and conservative parties that have governed the country for generations, voting instead in this year’s elections for insurgents like Macron, as well as for the Communist-aligned Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen. The youngest and least experienced came out ahead, gathering nearly 21 million votes to trounce Le Pen in the runoff. The establishment now lies shattered. “The young generation was completely disconnected from political life for the past 20 years,” Mounir Mahjoubi, Macron’s 33-year-old digital coordinator, tells TIME. “What we are doing is a deep revolution.”
The French, of course, know all about revolutions–and Macron is sure to face strong opposition as he attempts to meet his pledge to rein in spending and cut taxes in order to kick-start the sputtering economy. Nor was the landslide necessarily a mandate: fewer than half of all registered voters cast their ballot for him, and many on the fringes see him as an establishment stooge. His brand-new La République En Marche! party must now fight to win a majority in elections (yes, again) for Parliament next month.
What, then, can le kid deliver for France? One answer came on election night, when he strode into the courtyard of Paris’ Louvre Museum for his victory rally not to “La Marseillaise,” as everyone expected, but to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”–the anthem of the 28-country E.U. The message was clear: Macron is not just the new French President but Europe’s new champion. The political and economic bloc was a bitterly divisive election issue, with Le Pen issuing dire warnings about offshoring jobs and terrorists slipping into France. Just like President Trump, she pushed to close the borders and rip up free-trade accords. Unlike Trump’s message, hers fell short. The shadow of the U.S. President might in fact have helped Macron’s argument for a more tightly knit Europe, reminding voters of the E.U.’s new vulnerability. “Now that we know we cannot be 100% sure the U.S. will always be with us, if we don’t rely on ourselves, we’re doomed,” says Pierre Haski, political columnist for the left-leaning magazine L’Obs.
Yet Macron is a total neophyte on the global stage and will now be looking for allies and possibly mentors among the world’s leaders. It’s clear he’s already becoming a magnet for other centrists. By the time Macron arrived at the Louvre on May 7, he’d already spoken to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Former U.S. President Barack Obama, who called him before the election and then endorsed him, could be a role model.
The same cannot be said of the current occupant of the White House. After Trump signaled in January that he might pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate-change agreement, Macron posted a video online inviting U.S. climate scientists to “come to France. You are welcome.” When Trump called Macron on May 8 to congratulate him, Macron told the U.S. President he would “remain vigilant” about climate-change agreements, according to Macron spokeswoman Laurence Haïm.
But the two men are going to need each other, not least because French jets have pounded ISIS in Syria and the country has intelligence networks in Africa and the Middle East. Haïm tells TIME the pair exchanged cell-phone numbers in a prelude to their first date, scheduled for late May in Brussels. At that time, the whiz-kid new leader might reveal his approach to the world. It could be a fascinating moment–unbeholden to party orthodoxy, Macron is free to choose his alliances and priorities to a degree few world leaders are able to do.
And until then? In Macron’s campaign headquarters the day after the election, one young volunteer told TIME, “Just write, ‘France is back.'”
This appears in the May 22, 2017 issue of TIME.
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