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Illustrations by Antony Hare for POLITICO
PARIS â€” Call them Emmanuel Macronâ€™s praetorian guard.
As the French president prepares to seek reelection in April, he has turned to a select group of close advisers to help him in the battles ahead.
While Macron likes to hold court and seek input from a wide variety of sources, when it comes to strategic decisions, he relies on a small number of longtime loyalists, eschewing professional politicians except for those who supported in the early days of his longshot 2017 presidential run.
â€œHeâ€™ll have a very compact, airtight operation around him,â€ said one of Macronâ€™s former ministers.
With the French president having just officially announced his effort to reconquer France, POLITICO has pulled together a list of those he will most heavily rely on as he leads the charge.
With graying hair and a taste for conventional suits, Alexis Kohler comes across as a nondescript bureaucrat. Discreet, withdrawn, you could easily forget he is there. But as Macronâ€™s chief of staff, Kohler, 49, holds the power behind the throne. Whether in domestic or international affairs, few decisions are taken that donâ€™t have his input. He is also expected to be the kingpin of Macronâ€™s reelection push.
Those familiar with the ElysÃ©eâ€™s operations describe Kohler as an extension of the French president. â€œHe is [Macronâ€™s] double: two men, one brain,â€ said the same former minister. â€œKohler is exactly like Macron, but he can reach a level of detail that Macron should not get stuck into.â€ A former top government adviser agreed: â€œBetween Alexis and the president, there is no friction, they are completely aligned. When Kohler speaks, you know itâ€™s exactly what Macron thinks.â€
ÂA thoroughbred of the French establishment, Kohler boasts pedigrees from the countryâ€™s most prestigious schools: Sciences Po, ESSEC and the finishing school for the French ruling class, lâ€™ENA. He is also one of the presidentâ€™s earliest political traveling companions, having served as Macronâ€™s chief of staff when he was economy minister under then-President FranÃ§ois Hollande. In a rare interview, Kohler explained his relationship with Macron. â€œThe president sets the objective and sets out his vision with energy and conviction,â€ said Kohler. â€œIâ€™m there to make possible what is desirable. Itâ€™s not his job to take care of the plumping.â€
Strength: Can hack through a stack of bureaucratic drivel before you can say â€œthree-point plan.â€
Weakness: An ongoing investigation regarding alleged influence-peddling related to the shipping company MSC.
Mention IsmaÃ«l Emelienâ€™s name to Macronâ€™s campaign team and youâ€™ll get a telling silence in reply. The 34-year-old entrepreneur is something of a mythical creature within the ranks of the so-called Macronie, able to drop off the radar but still be at the center of power. Like a ghost, he slides down the gilded corridors of the ElysÃ©e and pops up in the smallest meeting rooms of Macronâ€™s party headquarters.
A former special adviser to the president who resigned in the wake of a scandal, Emelien now serves the Macron campaign unofficially as a â€œstrategist,â€ according to the former minister in the presidentâ€™s government. A second minister said Emelien will join Kohler in writing parts of Macronâ€™s political platform and help bat away bad press with the crisis management skills he honed at the PR empire Havas.Â
Emelien is part of a gaggle of friends who came together to support a 2012 presidential bid by former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss Kahn, and then turned to Macron after DSKâ€™s went down in flames following allegations of sexual assault. The group includes Stanislas Guerini (now head of Macronâ€™s party), CÃ©dric O (junior minister for digital affairs), Benjamin Griveaux (former government spokesperson), Julien Denormandie (agricultural minister and expected to be campaign manager). Reportedly the brains of the group, Emelien worked as Macronâ€™s PR adviser at the economy ministry and then managed his lightning 2017 campaign. His nickname at the time: â€œNo mercy,â€ because of his bluntness when rejecting ideas.
Emelienâ€™s own proposals often come laden with more than a hint of danger. One of his brainchildren â€” a 2018 video of Macron criticizingÂ social care as â€œcosting a ton of doughâ€ â€” became a focal point of the Yellow Jacket protests. His ejection from the ElysÃ©e came after it emerged that he had provided advice in handling bad press to Alexandre Benalla, a security adviser who had been filmed assaulting a protester in 2018. â€œHe has ten ideas a day, five great ones, five that will get you impeached,â€ said an ElysÃ©e official who asked to remain anonymous.
Strength: An adventurous mind and an ambitious vision.
Weakness: An â€œend justifies the meansâ€ approach to politics that can get him into trouble.
FranÃ§ois Bayrou couldnâ€™t be more different from the French president. A 70-year-old father of six, he speaks a local Gascon dialect, owns a tractor and lives in the village where he was born in southwest France. But he is also one of the politicians whose timely backing propelled Macron ahead in the race for the ElysÃ©e in 2017. With his roots in his countryside near the Pyrenees mountains, he brings what Macron often lacks: a sense of what the French call deep France, la France profonde. â€œIf Bayrou furrows his brow, Macron takes notice,â€ said Eric AziÃ¨re, a Paris district councilor and former member of Bayrouâ€™s party the MoDem.
A former minister under ex-President Jacques Chirac, Bayrou has been as unfortunate in politics as Macron has been fortunate. He stood three times as a candidate for the French presidential election and failed three times. When he spotted Macronâ€™s rising prospects, he ditched his own ambitions and backed the then-economy minister. But Bayrou was unable to share the spoils of the victory. He was appointed justice minister but promptly had to step down after a month, following allegations his party had misused European Parliament funds to pay its assistants.
Since then, Bayrou has served Macron as a secret consigliere, advising him on political decisions.Â The two men are very much aligned politically on the need for reforms, on support for the European Union and the need for public consultations. â€œBayrou has a very strong personality and a real long-term vision for France,â€ said a former adviser. â€œHe has spent a lot of time thinking about the role of the French president and how to inhabit it.â€
Strength: Is as much at ease driving a tractor as he is navigating the corridors of power.
Weakness: Is a bit of a loner, and quite stubborn, cabourut in his Gascon dialect.
Emmanuel Macron may be a centrist. His wife and closest adviser, Brigitte Macron, 68, is a died-in-the-wool conservative. A former schoolteacher from a bourgeois family who met her husband when he was her pupil, Brigitte, 68, often appears in public dressed from head to toe in Louis Vuitton. Though she rarely turns up at campaign rallies and doesnâ€™t explicitly meddle in affairs of state, she has emerged as a champion of strict secularism at schools and criticized proposals to introduce nonbinary pronouns into the French vocabulary. Sheâ€™s also close to another conservative figure from the government, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer. â€œAs the first lady, she has never hidden her conservative views but she only works on social issues in order to balance it out,â€ said a government adviser.
Insiders describe her as the presidentâ€™s â€œreal-world sounding board,â€ who meets lawmakers discretely and is often called to her husbandâ€™s side to offer him advice. She is credited with making him aware of the online violence and harassment experienced by young teens, according to several people familiar with the subject. She was also invited by Meta, the owner of Facebook, to several events on child protection. â€œDeep down, [Macron] only trusts himself and Brigitte, she is the only one capable of making him do a complete U-turn,â€ said ClÃ©ment LÃ©onarduzzi, special adviser to the president.Â
Strength: Keen social skills and an eye for detail.
Weakness: Her ties with Mimi Marchand, a controversial businesswoman known as â€œthe paparazzi queen,â€ who was questioned by police over alleged witness tampering in an ongoing investigation of former PresidentÂ Nicolas Sarkozy.
For 37 years, Richard Ferrand was true to the Socialist Party, supporting its leaders without fail â€” until Macron came along. Ferrand, 59, was the first lawmaker to back the fledgling party En Marche! when Macron was still an unlikely insurgent. â€œI would see Macron blow away his opponents as he fended off their arguments like a ninja. He wouldnâ€™t give an inch,â€ said Ferrand in an interview with the JDD. â€œI understood then that what an exceptional person he was.â€
Now speaker of the National Assembly, Ferrand ranks fourth in the state hierarchy and serves as Macronâ€™s operator in parliament. With parliamentary elections scheduled two months after the presidential votes, one of Ferrandâ€™s jobs is to select the lawmakers who will attempt to secure a majority in the National Assembly. Ferrand is also proof that Macron still has supporters on the left, despite accusations he veered right during his presidency.Â
Itâ€™s not all plain sailing for Ferrand. In recent years, his mandate has been dogged by allegations of corruption, specifically that as head of an insurance company, he helped his wife secure a lucrative real estate deal in 2011. Though the charges in that case have been dropped twice, an appeal by Â an anti-corruption NGO is still pending in front of the countryâ€™s court of last resort.
Strength: His position as a bridge between the old and new world of French politics.
Weakness: The corruption case could still come back to haunt him, as it did recently when he promoted a prosecutor loosely tied to it.
ClÃ©ment LÃ©onarduzziâ€™s job isnâ€™t an easy one: to convince French voters that the president they have known for five years has something new to offer. But as a special adviser to Macron, LÃ©onarduzzi is specialized in polishing the presidentâ€™s image. Under his influence, Macron has responded to accusations that heâ€™s a â€œpresident of the richâ€ by showing a bit more of himself â€” that he enjoys a good football match or watching classic French movies. That may not win over the haters, but the presidentâ€™s popularity has stayed steady at 31 percent according to YouGov, even during the coronavirus crisis. â€œHe can sum things up in a way that is completely different to the president,â€ said a communications adviser from Macronâ€™s party. â€œThatâ€™s why it works, theyâ€™ve got complementary minds.â€
LÃ©onarduzzi, who like Emelien previously worked at the advertising firm Havas, is an expert in targeting â€œmarket segments.â€ He has made Macron submit to selfie-style videos of himself wearing a T-shirt and answering questions from young people about vaccination and roped him into an appearance on YouTube with the French influencers McFly and Carlito. â€œNo one knows what will divide the French [in February], so we are creating the conditions to have something to say about in each area,â€ said Jonathan GuÃ©mas, a speechwriter for the president, who works under LÃ©onarduzziâ€™s authority.
Strength: His ability to craft different messages for different audiences.
Weakness: As a denizen of the corporate world, he may find himself unprepared for the Darwinian environment of a presidential campaign.
Julien Denormandie is considered by many to be one of Macronâ€™s most faithful lieutenants, so itâ€™s no surprise a lot of people expect the 41-year-old agriculture minister to be tapped to run his reelection campaign. He and the French president go back to when Denormandie was a young engineer serving as a technical adviser in ministries. Macron, then economy minister, is said to have notice his sharp mind and hired him to help run his Cabinet. Later, Denormandie teamed up with Macronâ€™s political adviser Jean-Marie Girier to launch his successful 2017 bid for the presidency. While Girier focused on securing political allies, Denormandie served as a people manager, uniting the troops behind the leader.
With Macron in the ElysÃ©e, Denormandie became a minister of the city and housing, sparking controversy when he made cuts to a housing allowance scheme enjoyed by 10 percent of the population. As agricultural minister, he has secured the support of the most powerful French lobbies but come under fire from environmental NGOs after he reversed a ban on bee-killing pesticides. A fervent Catholic and a father of four, heâ€™s seen as a hard worker and a man who can keep a strategic secret in a heated campaign.
Strength: His discretion.
Weakness: For a political animal, his instincts are sometimes too bureaucratic.