The modern Julien Sorel

‘Pride of place in Emmanuel Macron’s presidential office goes to Le Rouge et le Noir. Does he recognise in himself the characteristics that enabled Julien Sorel to fly so close to the sun before he crashed and burned?’

Michael Maclay

Rênal? (US State Department)

There is much that is remarkable about Emmanuel Macron — whether you admire him or not. A growing proportion of French citizens appear to be losing faith in him, but his combination of intellectual brilliance, personal boldness and ruthlessness mark him out as exceptional among modern politicians. From afar, we tend to see him as a decisive figure above political party, best summed up in the uniquely French description of “Bonapartist”.

Yet there are those of us who find there is something even more remarkable about him, in his very human and personal back-story — a story curiously enough reflecting that greatest of all Bonapartist novels, Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir. This novel of the revolutionary period in France tells the story of Julien Sorel, the talented social-climbing country boy who seeks unsuccessfully to work his way up between the culture and institutions of post-Napoleonic France symbolised by revolutionary red and clerical black. Julien’s story ends ignominiously at the guillotine.

It is reported that pride of place in Emmanuel Macron’s presidential office goes to his own copy of Le Rouge et Le Noir. What a cultured and ironic reference, we might assume, in keeping with the image this super-educated president wishes to project. Does he recognise in himself the personal characteristics that enabled Sorel to fly so close to the sun before he crashed and burned? And is he equally aiming to show us that he means to escape the fate of Sorel, achieving the distinction and glory of Charles de Gaulle, his first Fifth Republic predecessor, whose memoir is the other book on display in his office?

There is, however, another dimension of Le Rouge et le Noir that deserves attention — more than it has received so far, even in France. Much of the narrative of the novel centres on Sorel’s melodramatic love affair with the wife of the mayor of the provincial town where his big break occurs, Madame de Rênal.

She is, for a country boy, a sophisticated and dazzling catch, if offering a foretaste of Emma Bovary in her self-dramatisation and sentimentality. Sorel is transformed by her from the shy tutor imported into the grand household into the fearless lover who cuckolds the most important man in town — albeit with some crass and ridiculous exploits along the way.

Madame de Rênal represents a critical stage in his evolution, the older woman who will enchant and educate him before being conquered and betrayed by him.

In the tradition of the German Bildungs-roman, Sorel must move on, with all the vigour and determination of a man who believes he is destined for the highest prizes. He has won from Madame de Rênal the self-belief to power him on to the great houses of Paris and the prospect of achieving every variety of worldly success — whether this is to occur by the path of clericalism, politics or the army. The route is immaterial. Julien is upwardly mobile, as ruthless as he is thoughtless, an Icarus flying closer than he realises to the sun — and it is his betrayal of Madame de Rênal, and the enemies he has made through his affair with her, that will ultimately bring about his downfall.

And what was the difference for our modern Julien, Emmanuel Macron, who to all appearance seduced his drama teacher at the remarkable age of 14 and destroyed the domestic peace of two families in his determination to get his way? Reader, as Jane Austen might say, he made an honest woman of his own Madame de Rênal, and married her.

He showed a breathtaking courage, conviction and self-belief to take as his partner a woman 22 years older than himself. He deserted his own family to lead a life as independent, single-minded and focused as it was unorthodox and unprecedented. Ruthless, maybe, but what a romantic story it is.

Macron’s wife Brigitte became and has remained his coach, his soulmate and his confidante. She has supported him in his ambitions, from philosopher to banker, from banker to bureaucrat, from finance minister to successful practitioner of a constitutional coup. She would attend meetings at the finance ministry as the minister’s most trusted adviser — and she still advises him on his speeches, his presentation, his performances, his image and his brand.

By all accounts, she makes it possible for him to keep his distance from those around him as they jockey for influence and preferment, for him to remain independent and self-contained politically. His triumphs and mistakes belong not to his government but to him — or to them.

Brigitte is a huge story in her own right, and every magazine from Paris Match up and down the market has tried to explain her. But the most interesting things about her are the ones that we will never know, because they stay between her and her husband.

What sort of a clue to it all is there in that very 19th-century figure, Madame de Rênal? What is President Macron telling us with his devotion to Julien Sorel’s story? What are Brigitte Macron’s chances of saving her soaring Icarus, her Jupiter, as he soars ever closer to the sun?           

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