Rothschild, who spent two decades seeking a tie-up between the French and the British Rothschild houses, cannot make sense of the UK’s decision to leave the EU. “It may sound a little stupid and romantic, but I was born during the darkest year of the war, my father was in London with de Gaulle and the British played a role in ending Nazism. And if you look from 30,000 feet high, why dismember a European continent where there’s so much intelligence and talent to make it a sum of medium-sized nations? It’s running counter to history.” He puts the blame on former UK prime minister David Cameron: “It’s a historical mistake to ask people ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on something even the political and business elite only partially grasps.”
The recent resignations of Brexiters Boris Johnson and David Davis give him some hope: “Perhaps the departures of these two messieurs will enable Mrs May to carry out a soft Brexit. This would make hard Brexiters whine, but it would be more protective of the economy. Voilà.”
Deal flow has not yet been affected, he says, but some at the bank are tempted to move to Paris after the EU picked the French capital as the new host for the European Banking Association in a drawing of lots in November. Another stroke of luck for Macron, I note, referring to the politician’s unlikely ascent to the presidency last year. This makes my guest a little defensive: “Planets have aligned, but it’s another thing to decide to go for it when you think planets will align,” he retorts before singing Macron’s praises (“extremely intelligent”, “courageous”, “doing what he said he would do”).
A little over a year after his election, the pro-business leader is struggling to get rid of his image as a haughty and unempathetic “president of the rich”. My attention drifts to the basil and lime sorbet in the delicate white meringue shell, topped by whipped cream and strawberries — a treat for the eyes and taste buds. As our espressos arrive, I remark that his father and he showed flair in poaching future presidents (Guy hired Georges Pompidou). I suggest it is down to Alexandre to pick a female leader. “Yes, why not! You?” he teases. I am past 40, it’s probably too late by Macronist standards, I say.
I inquire whether Macron really was the “Mozart of finance” some have described. He was promoted as a partner and advised on Nestlé’s €12bn acquisition of a Pfizer unit in 2012. “One cannot be the Mozart of anything after one year,” he admits. “But he has an ability to understand, evaluate and pick a direction, which is an inherent skill that he uses as head of state.” I tease him about his enthusiasm, but I sense it is genuine. The Rothschild link has meant fewer mandates from the state, not more, and brought other kinds of problems.
During the presidential campaign, Macron was accused of being the “candidate of finance”. Even the pro-business Les Républicains party released a drawing of the politician with a hooked nose and top hat, tapping into 1930s conspiratorial imagery. “Jews have always been scapegoats... perhaps because they are a talented minority,” Rothschild, who succeeded Auschwitz survivor Simone Veil as chair of the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah, reflects. Islamist extremism has lately fueled another kind of anti-Semitism. “We must spend time explaining and explaining.”
The French are full of paradoxes, he says. “I am very French even if I belong to an international family, I was mayor of Pont L’Evêque for 18 years, I have very deep French roots — and this nation is capable of the best, the French value success, but there’s always a sort of hostility towards other people’s money.” Beneath the surface, politics remain volatile, he adds. “One cannot not be slightly nervous about the prospect of having the extreme right or the extreme left at the helm of France one day.”
It is nearly 3pm, the bistro has quietened down. Through the window, I watch the Rothschild who rebuilt the family’s French legacy and united two branches of the dynasty cross the deserted Rue de Saint-Simon to find refuge in the shade, suddenly looking a bit frail.