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All the French president’s men (and one woman)

All the French president’s men (and one woman)

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Illustrations by Antony Hare for POLITICO

PARIS — Call them Emmanuel Macron’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.

“He’ll have a very compact, airtight operation around him,” said one of Macron’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.

Alexis Kohler

The supercomputer

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 Discreet, withdrawn, you could easily forget he is there.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 Macron’s chief of staff, Kohler, 49, holds the power behind the throne. Whether in domestic or international affairs, few decisions are taken that don’t have his input. He is also expected to be the kingpin of Macron’s reelection push.

Those familiar with the Elysée’s operations describe Kohler as an extension of the French president. “He is [Macron’s] double: two men, one brain,” said the same former minister. “Kohler is exactly like Macron, but he can reach a level of detail that Macron should not get stuck into.” A former top government adviser agreed: “Between Alexis and the president, there is no friction, they are completely aligned. When Kohler speaks, you know it’s exactly what Macron thinks.”

­A thoroughbred of the French establishment, Kohler boasts pedigrees from the country’s most prestigious schools: Sciences Po, ESSEC and the finishing school for the French ruling class, l’ENA. He is also one of the president’s earliest political traveling companions, having served as Macron’s chief of staff when he was economy minister under then-President François Hollande. In a rare interview, Kohler explained his relationship with Macron. “The president sets the objective and sets out his vision with energy and conviction,” said Kohler. “I’m there to make possible what is desirable. It’s not his job to take care of the plumping.”

Strength: Can hack through a stack of bureaucratic drivel before you can say “three-point plan.”

Weakness: An ongoing investigation regarding alleged influence-peddling related to the shipping company MSC.

Ismaël Emelien

The ghost

Mention Ismaël Emelien’s name to Macron’s campaign team and you’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 Elysée and pops up in the smallest meeting rooms of Macron’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 “strategist,” according to the former minister in the president’s government. A second minister said Emelien will join Kohler in writing parts of Macron’s political platform and help bat away bad press with the crisis management skills he honed at the PR empire Havas. 

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 DSK’s went down in flames following allegations of sexual assault. The group includes Stanislas Guerini (now head of Macron’s party), Cédric 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 Macron’s PR adviser at the economy ministry and then managed his lightning 2017 campaign. His nickname at the time: “No mercy,” because of his bluntness when rejecting ideas.

Emelien’s own proposals often come laden with more than a hint of danger. One of his brainchildren — a 2018 video of Macron criticizing social care as “costing a ton of dough” — became a focal point of the Yellow Jacket protests. His ejection from the Elysée 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. “He has ten ideas a day, five great ones, five that will get you impeached,” said an Elysée official who asked to remain anonymous.

Strength: An adventurous mind and an ambitious vision.

Weakness: An “end justifies the means” approach to politics that can get him into trouble.

François Bayrou

The consigliere

François Bayrou couldn’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 Elysée 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. “If Bayrou furrows his brow, Macron takes notice,” said Eric Azière, a Paris district councilor and former member of Bayrou’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 Macron’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. 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. “Bayrou has a very strong personality and a real long-term vision for France,” said a former adviser. “He has spent a lot of time thinking about the role of the French president and how to inhabit it.”

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.

Brigitte Macron

The confidante

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 doesn’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. She’s also close to another conservative figure from the government, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer. “As the first lady, she has never hidden her conservative views but she only works on social issues in order to balance it out,” said a government adviser.

Insiders describe her as the president’s “real-world sounding board,” who meets lawmakers discretely and is often called to her husband’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. “Deep down, [Macron] only trusts himself and Brigitte, she is the only one capable of making him do a complete U-turn,” said Clément Léonarduzzi, special adviser to the president. 

Strength: Keen social skills and an eye for detail.

Weakness: Her ties with Mimi Marchand, a controversial businesswoman known as “the paparazzi queen,” who was questioned by police over alleged witness tampering in an ongoing investigation of former President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Richard Ferrand

The godfather

For 37 years, Richard Ferrand was true to the Socialist Party, supporting its leaders without fail — until Macron came along. Ferrand, 59, was the first lawmaker to back the fledgling party En Marche! when Macron was still an unlikely insurgent. “I would see Macron blow away his opponents as he fended off their arguments like a ninja. He wouldn’t give an inch,” said Ferrand in an interview with the JDD. “I understood then that what an exceptional person he was.”

Now speaker of the National Assembly, Ferrand ranks fourth in the state hierarchy and serves as Macron’s operator in parliament. With parliamentary elections scheduled two months after the presidential votes, one of Ferrand’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. 

It’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  an anti-corruption NGO is still pending in front of the country’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.

Clément Léonarduzzi

The salesman

Clément Léonarduzzi’s job isn’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, Léonarduzzi is specialized in polishing the president’s image. Under his influence, Macron has responded to accusations that he’s a “president of the rich” by showing a bit more of himself — that he enjoys a good football match or watching classic French movies. That may not win over the haters, but the president’s popularity has stayed steady at 31 percent according to YouGov, even during the coronavirus crisis. “He can sum things up in a way that is completely different to the president,” said a communications adviser from Macron’s party. “That’s why it works, they’ve got complementary minds.”

Léonarduzzi, who like Emelien previously worked at the advertising firm Havas, is an expert in targeting “market segments.” 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. “No one knows what will divide the French [in February], so we are creating the conditions to have something to say about in each area,” said Jonathan Guémas, a speechwriter for the president, who works under Léonarduzzi’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

The soldier

Julien Denormandie is considered by many to be one of Macron’s most faithful lieutenants, so it’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 Macron’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 Elysée, 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, he’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.

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