When TIME first interviewed President Emmanuel Macron in 2015, he was an Economy Minister with a grand plan for a new kind of politics. The next time, in 2017, he had won power at the age of 39 and was putting that plan into action. For our third interview at the halfway point of his first term, our opening question was about the chaotic and sometimes violent reaction to what he has done in office.
Yet Macron hardly looked like a man who had weathered one of the most violent years in modern France, with Yellow Vest protesters burning barricades and hurling vitriol at him. Relaxed in his shirtsleeves in his office in the Elysée Palace on Sept. 9, he betrayed little sign of the turmoil some in his inner circle say he has been through in the past months. “There have been moments, very tough, especially on a personal standpoint,” says Ismael Emelien, a long-time advisor of Macron who left the Elysée in February. “He always knew that since we were transforming the country, it would come with some costs.”
Early this year, it seemed to many French that those costs might be as high as his presidency itself. But just a few months later Macron is riding a surge in the polls, and vowing not to be as aloof and impatient as before. And he is attempting to resume his position as a key, global champion for multilateralism.
The turnaround in his popularity is not the only change we found. Inside the 300-year-old palace once occupied by Napoleon, the heavy antique furnishings and wooden desk are gone. Now his office is all sleek black leather and neutral-color drapes. Some decorating touches, we were told, were from his wife Brigitte.
For more than an hour, Macron settled into one of the leather couches, to discuss his determination to change France, how the West has failed its middle classes, and how he spends his downtime. Here, extended highlights from the conversation, edited for length and clarity.
TIME : How much did the Gilets Jaunes [Yellow Vest] protests shock you?
MACRON: For me, the most important thing is what it told [us] about the current deadlock of democracies. Our global economy failed to improve the situation of the middle classes. There is an over-concentration of wealth in some hands. We have a crisis of capitalism. On top of that you have a big technology transition. It creates a lot of opportunities, but at the same time creates emotions, resentments, and disruption, killing jobs and creating new anxieties for a lot of people.
You still have a lot of people calling you ‘the president of the rich.’ They call you arrogant.
I think this is the French system. We are a country where we like leadership and we want to kill the leaders. I don’t mind if it’s fair or not, to be honest with you. I was elected, I’m in charge, and I’m the leader, so I take it. I don’t care. The deep roots is much more how to deal with inequalities in our society. We have a unique role in Europe. Our role is to build a new model on ecology, industry, education. That’s what we are doing.
In a certain way, you have a ‘Death Valley.’ I’m in this Death Valley. When you get rid of the past system you enter into this new road. And the end of the Death Valley is the day you have results, and you can clearly deliver.
But in the meanwhile, people were unhappy with the past system, but they were used to the past system. They are not clear about what they want, because they don’t have the results of what [we] are doing. So my challenge is to listen to people much better than I did at the very beginning. To have a method which is not just to reform for the country but to reform with the country.
Do you have any regrets about moments that come up again and again, like telling somebody that they should cross the street to look for a job ?
I think, first of all we live in a world where you might just catch one sentence, and get it out of the context. I spent a long while with each of these people and this was just one sentence. It’s not like I went out in the street, saw a man and said you should cross the street to get a job. I never did it.
Other politicians say just hello to people and don’t discuss because it’s probably too dangerous. I spent a lot of time in discussion with people, on a direct basis. So, I didn’t think this was arrogant. It was a little bit unfair. But politics is also about perception. It created this image, and that was that.
Do you feel you need to be more cautious now?
We acted very rapidly and drastically and we took a series of very important measures. I probably provided the feeling that I wanted to reform even against people. My impatience was felt as an impatience vis à vis French people. It is not the case. It was an impatience vis à vis the system. I think I have to take more time to explain where we are and what we want to do exactly, to keep reforming and transforming the country, because this is a necessity : To build this new country, this new France of the 21st century.
How bothered are you by the approval ratings in the polls month by month, tracking how you are doing?
Real-time democracy should not push us to have real-time obsessions and real-time action. When you are elected for five years you should be obsessed by your popularity if you campaign for a new election. But during the mandate I don’t overrate this.
Do you see any circumstances in which you would not run again?
It is not the right moment to raise this issue. The pace of reforms is unprecedented. We experienced a very hard crisis and I don’t consider it is over. What we have to do now is deal with this anxiety.
Building this new France is my obsession. I still have slightly more than two years and a half. It is not a lot. What I have to do now is every day convince people about the rational and the logic of what I am doing.
My obsession is to explain that the best answer to the crisis of democracies and middle classes, to deliver what I call this “new enlightenment.” I am totally ready to even sacrifice any possibility to go to any other election to witness that.
Do you mean you would rather succeed in the policy, than win another term in office?
Sure. Sure. I will never stop fighting to convince people what is at stake. You have such a rise of this democratic crisis, of hate speech everywhere in the political sphere and on social networks, of I would say fake news and increasing doubt in our society. Even the relationship with rationality, the relation with truth, with accountability, is at stake today.
If we can turn to foreign policy: Your relationship with President Trump has been extraordinary to witness. He’s been to the Elysée Palace four times, and you speak to each other regularly. Do you still believe you can persuade him to reverse course on Iran, climate, on trade and tariffs?
Look, when President Trump committed to doing a certain way with his voters, he does it. I respect that. This is good for democracy. If you want a president being compliant with the Paris Agreement [on climate change] or playing differently, elect a president who has such a behavior. When people reproach me for not succeeding in changing his mind, I tell them — I did my best. I always failed changing his mind when it was about clear commitment taken during his campaign.
President Trump is very attached to trying to find a deal, whatever the question is. If you take a lot of international crises, his willingness is not to have a war. I strongly believe that in Iran he does not want a war. He did not follow the hardliners of his Administration pushing for more tensions with Iran. And that is where we have a space to maneuver.
On Brexit, is there any give whatsoever in Europe, to break the deadlock with the U.K.?
I think we should look at the situation as it is. British people decided to leave. Not the European people. British people. I do respect this vote. I’m a strong believer in sovereignty. And during more than two years, the British government have negotiated in good faith with the E.U. in delivering an agreement. We have it. And today you have just a political British crisis because the British system is unable to vote [on] the agreement.
This deadlock is a British deadlock. It’s not a European deadlock. If they propose something which is compliant with the E.U. requirements, our negotiator can move. But we know what we don’t want. The four freedoms is not negotiable. We have to preserve stability and peace in Ireland. And the Good Friday Agreement and the roles decided during the Good Friday Agreement. That is absolutely critical. After that, the negotiators have to work together.
I think I see a lot of noise without a lot of serious discussion. So it’s time to discuss seriously. I saw the [E.U.’s negotiator] Michel Barnier on [Sept. 7], and he told me, I had very few discussions with British negotiators without any clear and concrete proposals. So, let’s propose and let’s see if it’s acceptable. At the end of the day, the British always have the possibility to withdraw Article 50. Nobody should forget that. So no deal will always be, at the end, a British decision.
When you campaigned for President in 2017 you warned people Europe was in danger of falling apart. Do you still feel that way?
I do believe it. If we don’t move forward on more integration of the Eurozone, my view is that it would probably not happen overnight, but progressively, we will lose our sovereignty, and Europe will be dismantled for sure.
The current European Union is an invention made seventy years ago, completely unique. We preserved peace and prosperity on this Continent. It never happened before in Europe. But it can fall apart if we don’t move forward. For the very first time you have adverse forces in favor of dismantling Europe. The extremists in Europe are all nationalists in favor of dismantling of Europe. This is unique, it never happened after Second World War, never, with such an intensity.
I wanted to turn briefly to Brazil, and your dispute with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro over the Amazon rainforest. It has been very personal, with him comparing your respective wives.
When somebody insults your wife this is unacceptable. I’m profoundly hurt by this lack of not just elegance but decency. When you are a leader, you cannot have these kind of statements. I never insulted any leader in my life and I will never insult any leader.
I had a meeting with President Bolsonaro in November. I made it clear I am a believer in climate change. A few weeks after, he took opposite measures, got rid of independent scientists. I sent my Minister of Foreign Affairs in Brazil and he cancelled a few minutes before the meeting, to go to the hairdresser. So when we committed to send support for the [wild fires raging in the Amazon forests] he took personally the fact that we said we would act to reforest everywhere. Brazil is a great country and Brazilian people are great people, so we have to help them.
How worried are you about the climate, particularly given President Trump pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement in 2017?
My fear at that time was its dismantlement over time. It did not happen because some leaders reaffirmed their commitments. We managed to convince Russia to ratify Paris Agreement, probably before [next week’s] United Nations General Assembly.
What we have to do now is to implement fair policy. This is for me the main challenge on the domestic basis. It is not a walk in the park, to be honest. I failed. One of the origins of the Yellow Vests was precisely the fact that we went too fast [hiking fuel taxes] on this issue without taking into consideration the social impact. This this is one of my main regrets.
A lot of young people are looking for more radical solutions perhaps to target climate change. Do you have sympathy with their position?
Yes, I have. They put very useful pressure on governments because they are the voice of future generations. The more you are pressed the more you can move. When you are a leader and every week you have young people demonstrating you cannot remain neutral. I would say exactly what President Roosevelt said to demonstrators in the 1930s: “Help me to move faster through your demonstrations.” We need to mobilize more and more people.
Can you convince France to become vegetarian?
I think you can have cows and it can be totally compatible with climate change. It is not black or white. And if you say being green is stopping eating cows, you create super confrontations in your society. What you need to build is a more rapid transition, reconciling everybody’s way of life.
What about your own personal life — how do you spend your downtime?
I think the way to organize your life is very important, not be under the pressure of the daily business and to remain independent and to think and to remain creative. So I preserve time for my family, I preserve time to think about things, walking, I practice sports regularly as well 2 or 3 times a week. Boxing, football, running.
Who do you spar with?
With my guards. You can do it everywhere, in the garden. At least two times a week. And I read every week, every day at least one or two hours, because it is important for me. I have never stopped.
Novels or history?
Both. I have just finished some recent novels. I finished La Tentation by Luc Lang, one of the most talented French authors. I read a series by Daniel Rondeau, La Raison le Coeur, about the evolution of Europe, and much more thinking about the situation. I read Camus this summer a lot, coming back to novels I read a few years ago, novels as well especially during the Algerian war. And I listen to music almost every day.
Do you still sing karaoke?
Sometimes, in specific context. I cannot tell you everything. But it happens. I still sing. Charles Aznavour and Johnny Hallyday.
And you still have time for the family?
Yes, for sure. Sometimes you miss some important family event. But my wife organizes our life in order that we see regularly the children and grandchildren for birthdays and holidays. So each holiday we have moments and for each birthday. This weekend I spent this Saturday with them. This is important.
You wrote a novel as a young man, as yet unpublished. When will we be able to read it?
When it will be readable, according to me. So I have to work again. I think after [my time in office ends], I will write. This is why I am very peaceful about the future. I will do my best as I am in charge. The day people will decide I am no more in charge I know what I will do.
Be a writer?
Yes. I think this is probably one of the most demanding things to be done and very important to me, especially after such a period of time. So the day people will decide I will do it. I love family, friends, books and I am ready to be alone and quiet.
When we first interviewed you, you said you always wanted to remain a newcomer. It was very important to you.
And now I am the insider of the bourgeois club! (laughs) This is why, by the way, the gilets jaunes crisis was in a certain way very good for me. Because it reminded me who I should be. It reminded me, for me the actual message was ‘We did not decide to have something [to vote for Macron in 2017] not to have our lives change.’