France unveiled the official portrait of its new president, Emmanuel Macron, on Thursday. It's a seemingly simple photograph — Macron standing in his office at the Elysee Palace in Paris — taken by 35-year-old Soazig de la Moissonnière, who has been with Macron since his presidential campaign.
Yet, as with most such portraits, there is a lot of symbolism here if you know where to look.
For Macron, a 39-year-old self-proclaimed radical centrist and former investment banker who won a landslide victory in presidential and parliamentary elections this year, the portrait is an opportunity to send some subtle messages about the sort of leader he will be.
The clearest message is in the flags flanking him. The French tricolor is there, of course, but so is the flag of the European Union. Both flags are given equal billing — a clear hint of Macron's pro-E.U. sentiment, which is likely to run into opposition from France's many Euroskeptics.
On the desk are carefully thought-out symbols. A clock that tells the time of the shoot — 8:20 — may be important, given that Macron has said he wants to be the “Master of Clocks” and set his own schedule. Meanwhile, an inkwell is topped by France's national animal, the Gallic rooster.
Three books lie on the desk, including an open one featured prominently in the portrait. According to reports in the French media, the open book contains Charles de Gaulle's memoirs — a powerful account of the great postwar president's experiences during World War II. The other two books are Stendhal's “The Red and the Black” and André Gide's “The Fruits of the Earth.” The first is a 19th-century novel that deals with an ambitious but provincial young man during the time of political tension that led to the 1830 revolution. The second is a prose-poem first published in 1897.
Perhaps just as noteworthy as these older books is the presence of two cellphones on the desk. In a video posted to Twitter by Sibeth Ndiaye, an Elysee spokeswoman, Macron is shown carefully placing the phones on the desk. In the video, the ping of an incoming text message can be heard (the top device is clearly an iPhone; it is unclear what the lower device is). It appears to be the first time that a cellphone has been featured in a French presidential photo shoot.
The setting of the photograph is important, too. French presidents have long taken official portraits, but the setting has varied. Some, such as Nicolas Sarkozy and François Mitterrand, have posed in the Elysee Palace's grand library for formal, almost regal shots. Others have attempted a more casual look, opting for the outdoors; Jacques Chirac and François Hollande went this route, though Hollande's portrait in 2012 was the subject of widespread mockery (despite it being taken by the great French photographer Raymond Depardon).
“This is not the picture of a President, this is a picture of a guy in a garden,” was one comment sent to a local newspaper.
But Macron is not in the library or the garden. Instead he's in his office, with the window open to the garden outside. Not only is he breaking with tradition with this location, he's also referencing both aspects by being simultaneously inside and outside. Speaking to Le Figaro, Jacky Isabello, a co-founder of the communication agency Coriolink, said the way Macron was leaning on the desk was reminiscent of the sort of pose an entrepreneur makes in official photographs — perhaps a nod to Macron's pro-business leanings.
(Isabello also suggests that Macron's chin “undoubtedly required a little retouching work” — a sign that even France's youngest president is a little worried about showing his age.)
Macron's photograph may not resemble those of other French presidents, but some journalists have noted that it looks remarkably like President Barack Obama's 2012 portrait. It would be a fitting nod, considering that the former U.S. leader endorsed his French friend in May. Obama remains a popular figure in France, and it is understandable that Macron might emulate the laid-back portrait of America's former leader rather than the more uptight portrait of its new one.
All in all, the Macron portrait seems to show a world leader striving to forge a new political path between right and left, tradition and innovation, government and business. It's an accurate perspective on his presidency, though it doesn't necessarily mean that it will work. But as you can also see from the photograph, Macron is holding on tightly to the president's desk.
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