Der Spiegel interviews French President Emmanuel Macron: Mr. President, since entering office in May, you have made significant waves around the world. The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who you read during your university studies, once described Napoleon Bonaparte as “the Weltgeist (“world spirit”) on horseback.” Do you believe that a single person can, in fact, steer history?
Macron: No. Hegel viewed the “great men” as instruments of something far greater. It should be said that in referring to him in that way, he wasn’t being particularly nice to Napoleon, because he of course knows that history can always outflank you, that it is always larger than the individual. Hegel believes that an individual can indeed embody the zeitgeist for a moment, but also that the individual isn’t always clear they are doing so.
DER SPIEGEL: How must a president, a politician, behave to move things forward and to change history?
Macron: Personally, I don’t think it’s possible to do great things alone or through individual actions. On the contrary, I think it is only possible to know what to do in a specific moment once you have understood the zeitgeist, and it is only possible to move things forward if you have a sense of responsibility. And that is exactly the goal I have set for myself: to try to encourage France and the French people to change and develop further. But that can only be done as a collective, with one another. You have to bundle the strength of those who want to take that step. The same is true for Europe.
(The president’s dog wanders in.)
Macron: Nemo, sit!
DER SPIEGEL: Nemo … did you name him that?
Macron: Yes. He was abandoned as a puppy and spent a year in an animal shelter. I had decided that I wanted a dog from an animal shelter. Normally, presidents have purebred dogs, but he is a Labrador-griffon mix. Absolutely adorable. Quite a stroke of fortune, isn’t it? From the animal shelter to the Élysée Palace. I quite like the idea, even if he has little idea where he has ended up.
DER SPIEGEL: You have lived for the last five months here in the Élysée, an almost mythical place. Do you feel that you have changed at all? Infallibility? Megalomania?
Macron: I try to follow certain rules. Nothing here should become habitual, because routine lends one a deceptive feeling of security. You begin not noticing certain things and lose your focus on what’s important. Uncertainty and change keep you attentive. This place and, to a certain extent, my office, help me avoid developing habits. The function of president in France is one of significant symbolic value; it can’t be compared with that of prime minister or cabinet member. Everything you do, everything you say – but also what you don’t say – suddenly has meaning. That might sound quite formidable or even stressful, but I think it is a product of the history of this role.
DER SPIEGEL: What’s it like to live here?
Macron: It is a place laden with history. The emperors spent time here, Napoleon I and Napoleon III. In the Fourth Republic, it was the palace of a president without powers. Only in the Fifth Republic did Charles de Gaulle move back in. It is a place where power has left its mark – over the course of centuries, ever since the revolution. You just sort of become part of it and continue the history. But, of course, there is a sense of gravitas.
DER SPIEGEL: That sounds a bit suffocating.
Macron: No, because you can leave this place when you want to. I go out and I say and do what I want – even if people may find that shocking. One could, of course, decide to be suffocated by all the pomp here. But if you decide to resist it, then you won’t be suffocated.
DER SPIEGEL: It seems your predecessors weren’t always particularly successful in that effort.
Macron: What is clear is that being president is the end of innocence for you as an individual. Nothing is innocent anymore when you are president. And that changes your life dramatically. Normally, everyone can afford the luxury of doing things that make no sense. They do things, no matter what it is, and nobody cares. But when you are president, everything is significant, at least for the others. Everything is important and could even have profound consequences. That is sometimes troubling, yes. But it isn’t overwhelming.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you think that Angela Merkel feels the same way?
Macron: Germany is different from France. You are more Protestant, which results in a significant difference. Through the church, through Catholicism, French society was structured vertically, from top to bottom. I am convinced that it has remained so until today. That might sound shocking to some – and don’t worry, I don’t see myself as a king. But whether you like it or not, France’s history is unique in Europe. Not to put too fine a point on it, France is a country of regicidal monarchists. It is a paradox: The French want to elect a king, but they would like to be able to overthrow him whenever they want. The office of president is not a normal office – that is something one should understand when one occupies it. You have to be prepared to be disparaged, insulted and mocked – that is in the French nature. And: As president, you cannot have a desire to be loved. Which is, of course, difficult because everybody wants to be loved. But in the end, that’s not important. What is important is serving the country and moving it forward. [Continue reading…]