It’s a bright early September day inside France’s presidential Élysée Palace, and President Emmanuel Macron is reflecting on the grueling 12 months just past, with the so-called Yellow Vests (gilets jaunes) protesters raging across the country, many aiming their fury at him.
That was surely enough to rattle any leader. Yet Macron, leaning forward on his leather couch, offers another view. “In a certain way, the gilets jaunes were very good for me,” he says, as the afternoon shadows lengthened on the lawn outside. “Because it reminded me who I should be.”
The question of who Emmanuel Macron should be has occupied the French, and many around the world, in the three years since the then Economy Minister launched a grassroots uprising of his own. That movement would deliver him the presidency in May 2017 and smash a political order that had lasted for half a century. Macron first and foremost saw himself as a reformer, throwing himself into dismantling rules that he believed had long strangled France’s economic prospects. He and his La République En Marche party (LREM) scrapped a wealth tax levied on France’s richest residents, trimmed the country’s labyrinthine labor regulations and made it less costly for companies to hire and fire staff.
But Macron also saw himself as a global leader. In the two years since his victory, the President, just 41, has inserted himself into every international crisis, striding into the vacuum left by the weakened German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the Brexit-distracted U.K. and a U.S. President in retreat from the role of leader of the West. In a fractious European Union, Macron has quietly worked to shape the agenda on pivotal issues like the environment, defense, trade and data privacy. TIME called him the “next leader of Europe” on its November 2017 cover, adding a caveat–“if only he can lead France.”
Over the past year, he has struggled to answer the question raised by the second part of that headline. As the President bestrode the world stage and dreamed up far-reaching reforms to transform France, many of his constituents grew restless. From the start, some in France regarded Macron as an arrogant know-it-all, whose past as an investment banker suggested membership in a hated elite. Macron did little to assuage that opinion in office; scrapping the wealth tax saved the richest French millions. He was quickly nicknamed le Président des riches (the President of the rich).
Then, in November 2018, Macron announced an increased fuel tax to help pay for his ambitious green-energy rollout. Thousands snapped in anger, providing the raw ingredients for the Yellow Vests movement to detonate full force. Unlike the other popular revolts that have periodically rocked France in past decades, this one was not organized by any labor or student organization; it mushroomed leaderless on Facebook, then ricocheted across the country, with protesters battling police, smashing storefronts and burning barricades for months on end.
By December, Macron’s popularity had shrunk to about 23%, forcing him to make a chastened retreat from his fuel tax and commit an additional $11 billion to social benefits. With his ambitious reform agenda on the line, Macron decided to launch a monthslong listening tour through the heartland–what he called a grand débat, or big debate. It grew out of what he learned from the street violence, he says–that he was too disconnected from the average French person. “My challenge is to listen to people much better than I did at the very beginning,” he says now.
His town-hall meetings across France seem to have rescued his presidency. Macron’s popularity now sits between 34% and 43%, up nearly 10 points from January. Although the Yellow Vests have resumed their Saturday street battles with police after a summer break, their numbers have shrunk.
The supreme confidence is still here. But in a shift from TIME’s last meeting with Macron in 2017, he was relaxed and informal. In his shirtsleeves, he leaned back and reflected at length on his tumultuous time in office and what might lie ahead. He hardly looked like a man who had weathered one of the most violent years in modern France, with Yellow Vests protesters hurling vitriol at him–yet friends say he suffered behind the scenes. “There have been moments, very tough, especially on a personal standpoint,” says Ismaël Emelien, a longtime adviser of Macron’s who left the Élysée in February. “He always knew that since we were transforming the country, it would come with some costs.”
The President attributes his early mistakes to being in too much of a rush to make changes, storming ahead with little awareness of the negative impact. “I probably provided the feeling that I wanted to reform even against people. And sometimes my impatience was felt as an impatience [with] the French people. That is not the case.” Instead, he says, he is impatient with the system itself. “Now, I think I need to take more time to explain where we are and what we want to do exactly.”
At the halfway point in a five-year term, Macron plows ahead with Part 2 of what he calls his “revolution.” At home, he is taking on the labor unions to reform the country’s hugely costly state pensions. And on foreign policy, he is playing peacemaker; he is trying to bring together leaders from Russia, Ukraine and Germany to solve the war on Ukraine’s eastern border and urging President Donald Trump to meet face to face with Iran’s Hassan Rouhani. He remains convinced of who he should be as President. But at the same time, he says, the experience of his presidency so far has left him feeling alone and exposed. He says he is in the “Death Valley” between setting out reforms and seeing them bear fruit. “The end of Death Valley is the day you have results.”
On the other side of that valley is a transformed country, Macron says. “Building this new France is my obsession.” Yet it is in that pursuit that his greatest problems lie.
Certainly, some things have gotten better since Macron came to power. France’s unemployment rate of 8.5% is now the lowest in more than a decade, down from 9.5% when he took power, according to E.U. statistics. Foreign direct investment in France last year was the highest in over a decade, and growth in 2019 is expected to be a steady 1.3%.
Yet France’s public debt has ballooned to nearly 100% of GDP, in part because more than 5 million people still work in its bloated civil service–and because of the billions Macron spent assuaging the Yellow Vests. So Macron began his rentrée–what the French call the period following the languid summer break–by pushing for an overhaul of one of France’s most cherished institutions: the state-funded pensions that consume 14% of public spending. First on the chopping block were the special privileges for dozens of professions carved out by labor unions over decades.
Unions reacted precisely as they have dozens of times before when confronted with reform-minded politicians: they put down their tools. Paris and other cities virtually ground to a halt on Sept. 13, as public transportation workers went on strike. On Sept. 16, nurses, doctors and even lawyers marched in protest.
Facing the prospect of drawn-out labor action, Macron insists he will make changes through consultation. To those in favor of reforms, that sounds too cautious. “Little by little he is becoming politics as usual,” says Daniela Ordonez, chief French economist at the global forecasting company Oxford Economics. “He has this freedom to do whatever he wanted.”
But to others, especially on the left, he is trying to create a gig economy in which people fend for themselves. Many French fear losing cherished benefits they have preserved for generations. “To be clear,” the left-wing French economist Thomas Piketty wrote in Le Monde newspaper on Sept. 10, echoing the opinion of Macron’s detractors, “the present government has a big problem with the very concept of social justice.”
When Macron talks of creating a green economy with innovation at its core, it can sound as if he is describing a startup rather than a country. “This is a necessity: to build this new country, this new France of the 21st century,” he says.
But the old France, in which millions of people depend on the support of a high-spending government, is still very much in evidence. That was clear the day after TIME’s interview with Macron, when we accompanied him to Bonneuil-sur-Marne, a middle-class town 10 miles southwest of the city. Under a program in partnership with the government, companies there have hired about 120 people who have been unemployed long term, offering them training and drawing them into the regular workforce.
For more than an hour, Macron inched his way through a factory, engaging in long discussions with each worker about their lives. “How did you come to France?” he asked the mostly new immigrants, who packed sneakers for the French company Veja and dismantled used electronics for recycling. Finally, he took up a chair in the warehouse, which had been turned into a meeting hall for the afternoon, and held court for several hours. About 200 local officials and workers passed around the microphone, alternately complaining about government bureaucracy and telling the President how the jobs program had changed their lives. A man told Macron the training had “given me my shot after five years of unemployment.” “Bravo, that is great news!” Macron replied.
He did not sugarcoat what he believes is happening to France. “Society is unraveling. That’s more or less what we are experiencing now,” he told the crowd. “If we are not able to fix the problem of great poverty, it will keep fraying.” He said his government would spend $1.1 billion on the program during the coming year, up from just over $900 million last year, with the aim of creating 175,000 new jobs. The hall erupted in applause.
But Macron’s heavy spending risks blowing the 3% limit on France’s public deficit, which the E.U. mandates for each member state.”What Macron wants is a change of the E.U. rule that says you have to reduce your debt every year,” says Daniel Gros, director of the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels. “I do not think he will get it.”
Macron has yet to face that argument in Brussels, where for now he enjoys enormous clout. But at home, he is resigned to losing some battles. He is still referred to as the President of the rich, a nickname he says he has learned to shrug off. “I don’t mind if it is fair or not, to be honest with you. I am in charge, and I am the leader, so I take it. I don’t care,” he says. “In our country, we like leadership and we want to kill the leaders.”
If Macron seems to have enough on his plate in France, he also feels a keen responsibility to try to protect the very future of Western freedoms. One of the most important things for the rest of his second term is the “current deadlock of our democracies and the big risk of failure we have,” he says.
In Europe, he appears to have prevailed (for now) against the nationalist politicians who seemed in the ascendancy when he took office. Although his LREM party was edged out of first place by Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally in the European parliamentary elections in May, Macron’s political grouping is far larger in the European Parliament. Italy’s right-wing League party, no fan of Macron’s, lost power in early September. And the newly appointed future President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, a Macron favorite, included many of his allies among her 27 commissioners in Brussels. “He is the biggest leader in Europe,” says Gros. “There is no one else really around.”
Macron is also making a fresh attempt to install himself as the global champion of the multilateral order–the role in which he has long positioned himself, in contrast to the winner-takes-all mentality of Trump, who was elected six months before him. Macron has repeatedly tried in vain to have Trump reverse his isolationist decisions, including withdrawing the U.S. from the nuclear deal between Iran and the major world powers, and from the Paris Agreement on climate change. Macron acknowledges he has mostly hit a brick wall. “When people reproached me not to have succeeded in changing his mind on climate change and so on, I tell them I did my best.”
But he says he has “respect” for Trump for sticking to his guns, delivering to his voters what he promised during his campaign. Ultimately, he says, it’s up to American voters to decide. “If you want a President being compliant with the Paris Agreement [on climate] or playing differently, elect a President who has such a behavior,” he says. “This is democracy.”
Even so, the differences with Trump have helped Macron, casting him as the foil to the U.S. President. It is with him that Trump now butts heads on Iran, the Middle East, the environment, NATO and myriad other issues. When Chinese President Xi Jinping flew to Europe last March, he met Macron, Merkel and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker for talks at the Élysée. In August, Russian President Vladimir Putin met Macron in the south of France to discuss a potential peace deal in Ukraine.
The same month, Macron made a rentrée to the world stage as host of the annual G-7 summit. There, he outmaneuvered Trump by inviting Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to meet him during the summit, hoping to pave the way for the U.S. President to meet his Iranian counterpart Rouhani–with whom Macron also speaks regularly–perhaps at the U.N. General Assembly in New York City in September. Macron sees Iran as the one issue on which he might well influence Trump, though Iran has ruled out such a meeting.
Iran was just one issue at the G-7 summit in Biarritz, however. Macron also mobilized the other six leaders to help fight the fires raging in the Amazon forests, raising a modest $20 million from the group. In response, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro attacked Macron personally, liking a meme that compared the two men’s wives that a user posted on Bolsonaro’s Facebook page and suggesting Macron would prefer Brazil’s First Lady.
The action was regarded even by many Brazilians as insulting, but for Macron the outrage was genuine. The remark had hit at his most treasured sphere, his family. “When somebody insults your wife, I mean this is unacceptable,” Macron says. “I’m profoundly hurt by this lack of not just elegance but decency.”
Even if Macron wins a second term in office in 2022, he will still be just 49 when he moves out of the Élysée–young enough to create an entire second career. And a glimpse at Macron’s private life inside the presidential palace makes it tempting to imagine what kind of life that might be.
A lifelong bibliophile, Macron says he carves out “one or two hours” a day for reading–essential for his well-being, he says. Over the summer, he reread books by Albert Camus and polished off the new novel by French writer Luc Lang, among others. Once or twice a week he plays sports, including boxing, sparring with his bodyguards in the sweeping gardens of the Élysée. Downtime is crucial, he says, “to remain independent and to think and remain creative.” A karaoke maven while a graduate student, Macron admits he “still sings” karaoke “in some contexts.” And his musical tastes are last century: French greats Charles Aznavour and Johnny Hallyday.
His wife Brigitte, 66, organizes their private life, committing the President to spending holidays and birthdays with her three children (two of them older than Macron) and their families, whom Macron refers to simply as “my family.” There was almost a familial atmosphere on the day TIME visited. Many of Macron’s aides, a group of about 50, are close associates he has worked with for years. At the start of the day, Nemo, Macron’s black Labrador-griffon rescue dog, came puttering down the grand, empty staircase, until a presidential guard gently guided him back upstairs to his master. After dark, Macron and his wife caught up on the day in his private office, while he organized papers.
It took some time for Macron to settle on a life in politics. He had always dreamed of being a writer and is convinced he ultimately will be one; he wrote a novel, unpublished, while he was an undergraduate student. “I will write,” he says. “That is why I am very peaceful about the future. The day people will decide I am no more in charge, I know what I will do.” It would be a drastic change of pace from his existence as President, but Macron claims he would welcome it. “I love family, friends, books. I am ready to be alone and quiet,” he says. The one question is whether he will be writing in a truly transformed France or one in which a young, dapper leader reached for a revolution but managed only to tinker with the old system.
This appears in the September 30, 2019 issue of TIME.