Macron, Zelensky and the look of leadership

At first I dismissed it as a fake, the image was so preposterous: the French president Emmanuel Macron, gripping a dossier of documents, his face unshaven and wearing a hoodie with the logo of CPA 10, a branch of the country’s special forces. Flanked by the classical details and gold ornamentation of the state rooms in the Elysée Palace, his choice of outfit seemed totally out of kilter.

“Zelensky cosplay” screamed the internet, as Macron’s sartorial debt to the Ukrainian president was made apparent. Although my first thoughts on seeing this aberration, captured with an eyebrow cocked and smirking, were of Jason Bourne meets The Pink Panther’s Inspector Clouseau.

Rather than a fake, the images are part of a growing archive of images by Soazig de la Moissonnière, a former photojournalist who, since 2016, has been the chief photographer to Macron, and one of a growing number of photographers employed to capture candid shots of a politician’s career. First used by JFK, who employed Cecil W Stoughton to capture him in office, the personal photographer of the president is supposed to be offering a public service: Pete Souza, for example, captured intimate moments with Barack Obama in the White House, pictures that helped seal his image as a man of principle and compassion.

More recently, however, these on-site portraitists have become one element in what seem to be a monstrous vanity project. The images by de la Moissonnière have already contributed much to the meme-building around Macron’s war effort. Another equally cringeworthy set of images, taken in the run-up to the Russian invasion, finds him with head clasped in anguish following anxious diplomacy exchanges, rebranded by Twitter users as #sadMacron.

Six weeks before a leadership election, positioned as one of the key players in the peace talks, Macron has acquired a more unpolished image. The casual sweats, the unkemptness, the disheveled virility: are all motifs that owe a massive debt to Volodymyr Zelensky. And, presumably, Ukrainians must be touched that the president is such a fan-boy of their leader he’s playing dress-up while posing from the comfort of the palace.

But while Macron’s efforts to emulate Zelensky in his deportment are embarrassing, they do speak to the politics of a wartime leader’s wardrobe. That Macron, of the impeccably tapered trouser lengths and pristine white cuffs, has started rolling out the sweatshirts speaks to a new desire among public servants to catch some of that Zelensky “everyman” chutzpah.

And while it looks laughable for world leaders to dress like someone who is actually sitting in a bomb shelter in order to bolster their credentials, the wartime hoodie has become a useful way for leaders in this crisis to semaphore their sympathies. After all, Putin, who still insists that Russia is engaged in a “special military operation” in Ukraine, is only wearing suits. Putting on your paratrooper hoodie at least tells people there’s a war on.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in tee and hoodie rather than body armour © Ukrainian Presidential Press Services/AFP via Getty Images

Zelensky, meanwhile, in his dusty combats, has emerged as a modern icon. And while, clearly, his outfit has not been a first priority in his planning, one can only imagine the former television star has been a careful student of his wardrobe choices.

An actor whose presidency for years has coexisted between the worlds of fact and fiction, Zelensky has finessed his public image in conjunction with an on-screen evolution: in just two weeks, he can already be captured in a pen sketch, the unshaven man with a three-day goatee who always wears a khaki tee and sometimes a zippered hoodie. The pared-down look is a continual reminder that he represents the ordinary Ukrainian: there is no posturing or fancy extras.

More significantly, he has defied accusations that he has left his capital by walking around Kyiv without wearing any obvious protection. In eschewing the normal body armour one might expect to see on politicians in a war zone, Zelensky’s choice has been an extraordinarily brave one. In insisting the world see how vulnerable he is, he has emerged as the world’s strongest and most charismatic leader.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, centre, has pledged to help Putin and has a predilection for Prada boots © Yelena Afonina/Tass via Reuters

It’s an astonishing contrast when one considers the guerrilla combats and grizzled uniform of Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen Putin loyalist who announced last weekend he would be supporting the Russian effort. The impression of his hard-nut, wildman vigilantism is somewhat dissipated, however, by the delicious discovery that the man wears AW19 season Prada combat boots that cost $1,500. For the love of God, the vanity of some men is absolutely shocking. I know very little of combat, but I can tell you that to try to run in those gigantic lug soles will be an absolute disaster.

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