A short time after becoming France’s youngest ever president in 2017, Emmanuel Macron made a boast about his temperament that made clear he was expecting trouble while in office.
“I’m not made to lead in calm weather,” he told author Emmanuel Carrere during a tour of the hurricane-hit French Caribbean island of Saint Martin in 2017. “My predecessor was, but I’m made for storms.”
The comment, made as he observed devastated homes, proved prophetic.
Over his five years, some storms were expected, some were of his own making, while others barrelled over the horizon unannounced.
After Macron’s first year in office, marked by major tax and labour market reforms, he faced some of the most violent anti government demonstrations since the 1960s when protesters in florescent yellow safety jackets began a nationwide revolt against his policies.
From the beginning of 2020, he battled a once-in-a-century global pandemic as Covid-19 spread from China, rendering almost all other government business irrelevant and putting paid to his last reform plans.
“We are at a time in the history of humanity when we have rarely seen such an accumulation of short-term crises,” he told a think tank in late 2020.
For the last month and a half, having weathered Donald Trump’s norm-shredding American presidency, he has been on the diplomatic frontlines trying to end Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
‘President of the rich’
Throughout all these crises, the man dubbed “The Chameleon President” by Le Monde newspaper, has often confounded the French.
His pro-enterprise reforms, tough talk on crime, and belief in well-funded public services and state regulation — “neither of the left, nor the right,” he says — has sometimes made it hard to pin down the essence of “Macronism”.
As a personality, still aged only 44, he is seen by fans as energetic and bold, but criticised for being abrasive and sometimes authoritarian.
His long work days and late-night demands on ministers have left many around him exhausted.
“I think I arrived in power with a sort of vitality, which I hope I still have, with a desire to shake things up,” he told TF1 television in an interview in December.
That desire, he now concedes, has sometimes been the source of his errors, particularly off-the-cuff comments made to members of the public that have forged his reputation for arrogance and insensitivity.
He once told an unemployed gardener that he could “cross the road and get you a job” and accused opponents of his labour market reforms of being “slackers”.
“I think that with some of my comments I hurt people,” the former investment banker at Rothschild and Co continued during his interview with TF1.
“And I think you can get things done without hurting people.”
Nicolas Domenach, co-author of a recent book titled “Macron: Why so much hatred?”, said these remarks, coupled with Macron’s decision to make tax cuts for the wealthy one of his first priorities, were the fuel for the “Yellow Vest” protests in 2018.
“Not only did we have a ‘president of the rich’, but a president of contempt and arrogance. Everyone we spoke to mentioned it,” said the veteran journalist and commentator. “It cut through. It was like he was branded with it, with hot iron.”
Despite stirring such strong feelings in opponents, Macron has always retained a loyal core of support, mainly from urban professionals.
They admire his pro-business policies and desire to modernise France’s vast social security system, as well as what is widely seen as an uncommon intellect and grasp of policy detail.
Partly thanks to his reforms and vast government spending during the Covid-19 pandemic, unemployment is at its lowest level in 14 years.
“People are also proud when they see him overseas. He represents France well,” explained Domenach.
Macron believes in a “diplomacy of audacity” and he has thrown himself into the search for solutions to crises ranging from Iran’s disputed nuclear programme, to Libya’s civil war, and latterly the Russian-Ukraine conflict.
His repeated mediation efforts have rarely borne fruit — including his most recent attempts to convince Putin not to invade — but the Ukraine crisis has proved a boon for his dream of a stronger, more united European Union.
Macron’s unusual personal life remains a source of fascination in France, though his marriage is no longer a subject of open speculation, as it was before the 2017 election which forced him to make a public denial that he was gay.
He is married to his former drama teacher Brigitte, whom he met while a pupil at a private school in their hometown of Amiens in northeast France.
More than 24 years his senior and a mother of three children, Brigitte divorced her husband and began a relationship with Macron while he was in his late teens.
Known to have reluctantly embraced her husband’s political ambitions, she once said she wanted to avoid being like “a vase of flowers” in the background at official functions but has kept a relatively low profile as first lady.
“I’ve learned not to speak openly to anyone, anywhere and anyhow which is a colossal effort for me because I’m very talkative,” she told the Figaro newspaper recently.
If Macron fails with his bid for a second term — or succeeds and serves a second term until 2027, when he will be only aged 49 — his mother has an idea of what his future might hold.
“I’m convinced he’ll launch himself as a writer, that he’ll take another path. He’s not the sort of person to do the international conference circuit,” Francoise Nogues told the writer Gael Tchakaloff for her book about the Macron couple.