Also sprach Macron … und er sprach und sprach und sprach

Politics-speak

‘For a desperate disease, a desperate cure’ (Montaigne). So it came to pass that – in a difficult social and industrial climate – after spending most of his first year apart (and aloof) from the press, over 3 days President Macron had two separate (but utterly different) TV appearances. During his initial 11 months Macron had but 3 TV interviews. He’d been seemingly happy encouraging the belief that his ‘Jupiterian’ persona had been devised as a response to the nation’s needs. His Presidency was to be as unlike as possible both Hollande’s ‘normal’ President and Sarkozy’s ‘hyper-President’.

First off, we got 70 minutes of gentle, deeply respectful lunchtime chat: no gastric juices will have been disturbed. The ‘interview’ (questions near-servilely offered on a platter) was conducted by the doyen of lunchtime telly, J-P Pernaut (‘JPP’). A veritable institution, he’s attracted 5 million viewers most days for his lunchtime TF1 news show over 30 years. The charming shtick was to find the President sat in the middle of a primary school class, in a tiny Normandy village, children seen through the window playing outside. An ideal setting to explain Presidential Thinking on the-then-still-possible Syrian bombing raids, plus the increasingly-tense industrial relations climate.

The President delivered a clear message: he’d continue driving through his reform package ‘with the same force’ despite the protests. He wasn’t apologising for his project. ‘I am’ he said, ‘asking the French people to believe in me. I’ve proved that when I say things, I do them.’ 

The Financial Times Tony Barber (Europe Editor) summarised it well: ‘As he does so often, Mr Macron gave an articulate, convincing performance’. He’d no difficulty with the questions. But then that might have been thought a given from an interview conducted by someone who considers that the lead item on his flagship show, every single day, has to be … The Weather.

The head of Le Monde‘s political staff, Nicolas Chapuis, identified 3 messages in the interview, with the President:

  • wanting it understood that he was well aware of the mounting disquiet, especially among pensioners and those who lived in rural communities;
  • going beyond the ‘mantra’ previously articulated by Candidate Macron (his stated ambition had been to ‘liberate’ and ‘protect’ the French people) by declaring that his role was also to ‘unite’. Clearly wishing to be heard, he repeated that he was ‘the President of all the French’. He wanted, he said, to avoid divisions between town and country, rich and poor, pensioners [Macron actually thanked pensioners, in terms, for their financial contribution and their ‘solidarity’ through paying extra taxes – strange, perhaps, that those ultra-contented beneficiaries of the abolition of the Wealth Tax (and its replacement by a Mansion Tax) aren’t ‘invited’ to make a similar gesture of solidarity] and employees; and
  • asking for patience concerning the delivery of measures of social protection, which would emerge once budget cuts and liberalisation had been implemented.

Only one item of news emerged. ‘If the experiment in reducing the speed limit on certain roads from 90 to 80kph hasn’t worked in 2 years, we’ll abandon it.’

The second confrontation (Sunday night, 3 days later) was in a totally different register. Two seriously pugnacious (even aggressive) interviewers:

  • Bourdin, a right(ish) populist who boldly articulates what’s ‘politically incorrect’ and self-represents The People in its struggle against The Elite
  • Plenel, one of many ex-Trots in public life, but one of the few who’s still a lefty (he’s far too ‘bolshie’ for many, yet good for burnishing Macron’s credentials with the centre/right; Marine Le Pen said she was ‘scandalised’ that Plenel was an interviewer), previously a Le Monde investigative journalist (and indeed erstwhile Editor), he now runs Mediapart, the news website that gets good exclusives.

The Argumentative Ones had insisted that the interview wouldn’t be at the Elysée. Instead, they chose Paris’s oh-so-elegant Chaillot Theatre (the building where the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948).

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And, during a marathon of over 2 hrs 40 (watched by an average of nearly 4 million on news channel BFMTV – their 2nd best ever audience), the President sat in one of the theatre’s wonderful public spaces, the window directly behind him framing the phallic Eiffel Tower, across the Seine. [Tourist Note: both Chaillot and nearby gallery, Palais de Tokyo, are great places for a brilliantly uncluttered view of the Eiffel Tower … and a drink.] In case we silly viewers hadn’t entirely got it, the lefty was placed on the left, t’other on the right AND THE PRESIDENT WAS RIGHT SLAP BANG IN THE CENTRE

Each interviewer, tieless, adopted a strictly non-hierarchical approach to the President. Never addressed as ‘Monsieur le President’ (except for the intro), he was but ‘Emmanuel Macron’. A fair bit of interviewing time was also spent on being oh-so-‘Anglo-Saxon’ by constantly interrupting the President and each other.

Macron displayed a hugely impressive breadth of knowledge. His cool in the face of unusually tough (and almost aggressively patronising) questioning and his ability to keep going was enviably accomplished. He can talk at length (without repetition etc) on any subject. Yes, he was occasionally insufferably all-knowing (that close to condescending), but it’s hard to think of (m)any politicians, anywhere, who would have dealt so smilingly and ably over such a lengthy onslaught … without a single briefing note.

An early example of Plenel’s style came when he reproached the President for having divided the country with its current multiple industrial disputes. ‘You called your movement En Marche, shouldn’t it rather have been called En Force?’ Macron replied: ‘Is that a question or advocacy for your side?’ Bourdin (not wishing to be outdone in the lèse-majesté stakes), talked of the need to fight the country’s inequalities and referred to Macron’s [billionaire] ‘friend Bernard Arnault’. Macron snapped: ‘Insinuations aren’t a good thing in life … You’re not judges round this table. You’re interviewers. I’m President of the Republic.’

Plenel at one stage reminded the President that he ‘wasn’t the teacher and we’re not the pupils’. That phrase echoed Candidate Mitterand in his (very successful) Presidential TV debate with incumbent Giscard d’Estaing (‘I am not the pupil and you’re not President of the Republic’) as well as Le Pen in her (deeply unsuccessful) TV debate with Macron.

Macron insisted again that he’d heard ‘the country’s anger’ (railway-workers, pensioners, students, hospitals). But flexibility was there none. What’s required is his reform programme, and nothing but: ‘Reconciling and uniting the country is still my objective, but that’s not done by inaction or by giving in to the tyranny of minorities who’ve grown used to people giving way.’ No concession. No apology. Definitely no change of policy.

The range of questions covered just about every possible subject (with one really odd omission – not a word on the environment) but gave us little new:

  • university occupations were downplayed, the President claiming that students on many blockaded campuses (unhappy with new University access rules – no longer will the higher school exam, the Bac, be an automatic Uni laissez-passer) were in a minority and were led by ‘professional troublemakers’
  • he promised no new taxes before 2022; again, he said the pensioners’ extra tax sacrifice rightly helped reduce the social security burden on those with jobs

Anyone who (strangely?) may not wish to relive the full 158 minutes (they’re all here) can see a few of the better highlights in these vigorous exchanges picked out by GQ, though it doesn’t give the fullest flavour of President Macron’s relaxedness.

And when he’s not ‘communicating’ via TV interviews, the President is ever-increasingly doing his own version of The Populist: find and meet representatives of vox pop, have a ‘lively’ discussion and then send it all out there for the nation to see him (once again) putting it over someone. His Twitter feed has a number of such confrontations. Presidential uber-politeness while patiently explaining his political position and then, often, complaining about The Real Person’s lack of politeness.

But, as weekly news magazine Marianne pointed out, the Elysée decided not to post one particular exchange which (unlike those Trumpian bombs) definitely wasn’t smart:

  • President: ‘You must stop taking people hostage’.
  • Railway worker: ‘Don’t talk about hostages, we’re not terrorists.’

For what little it’s worth The New York Times‘s Paris correspondent, Nossiter, didn’t rate Emmanuel Macron’s performance in The Giant Row Interview. A long article ‘Why the French are Growing Angry with Emmanuel Macron’ explains why [lucky for Macron there’s zero danger of Trump reading that NYT message] in Nossiter’s view, ‘the image remaining is that of an aggravated French president, his voice fairly choking, having to remind his interlocutors, “You are the interviewers, and I am the president of the Republic!”’ I beg to differ … radically: Macron was happy to offer a re-match next year.

God-speak

‘We don’t do God’ (said Campbell, PM Blair’s Strategy Director in 2003). They’re not supposed to on this side of the Channel, but some do sometimes.

‘We share the vague feeling’ said President Macron ‘that the link between Church and State is damaged, and that it’s up to both of us to repair it’ speaking for over an hour to ‘400 well-known French Catholics’ (as described in the Catholic daily La Croix) having been invited by the French Bishops Conference. He continued: ‘Dialogue [between Church and State] is indispensable … A Church which claims not to be interested in temporal matters is not going all the way in its calling … A President of the Republic who claims not to be interested in the Church and Catholics is failing in their duty.’

Hard-left philosopher Pena-Ruiz riposted: ‘What’s the President trying to say? You can’t damage something which doesn’t exist. Since the passage of the 1905 law separating Church and secular State, Napoleon’s Concordat linking Church and State hasn’t existed … The President of a secular Republic must treat the beliefs of atheists, agnostics and religious people equally … Mr Macron seems to believe he’s a monarch who’s obliged to restore the alliance of Throne and Altar that existed under the Ancien Régime.’

[I’ve attempted before to explain the importance (interestingly, it’s felt across the French political spectrum) of the peculiar concept of ‘Laicité’. Despite living here for 27 years, this is an aspect of French cultural inheritance that’s difficult to grasp. It’s used (and abused) by everyone to pursue their individual politico-religious positions. This Wikipedia article in English explaining Laicity really is quite good: but, as the Wikipedia editor writes, it could well be expanded by merely adding chunks of the immensely longer and far more dense French equivalent article.]

One who rushed into print as soon as the President delivered his homily was Emmanuel Valls. The hard-line ex-Interior Minister and later Hollande’s Prime Minister for 2 years (now, apparently, contemplating candidacy as Mayor of Barcelona for the centre-right Ciudadanos Party, following increasing froideur with his newfound chums in Macron’s République en Marche Party) is a militant Laiciste. After Macron’s speech, Valls tweeted: ‘Laicity is France. It has one bedrock: the 1905 Law separating Church and State. The 1905 Law, the whole Law, nothing but the Law’. For Valls (and he’s far from alone) the 1905 Laicism Law is a sword and not a shield. Back in 2016, as ‘Socialist’ Prime Minister, he joined ultra-right Mayors trying to ban from France’s beaches women wearing the burkini (one-piece, head-covering swimsuit) … and was thoroughly rebuffed by the Council of State, who declared it legal.

The Left (and others) exploded with anger when Emmanuel Macron delivered his religious thunderbolt:

  • desperately unsuccessful ex-Socialist 2017 Presidential candidate Hamon (now a Varoufakis groupie and founder of Génération·s) declared the speech to be ‘profoundly contrary to the fundamental principles of Laicity of which he’s supposed to be principal guarantor’, it was an ‘unprecedented attack on Laicity … a new, dangerous insult to the 1905 Law by the President of the Republic’
  • yet-to-be equally unsuccessful newly-elected Socialist leader, Faure, said ‘Laicity is the jewel in our crown: it’s what the President of the Republic must defend’
  • permanently angry (but always eloquent) hard-left leader of Unbowed France, Mélenchon, went into overdrive tweets: ‘Macron’s total metaphysical madness. Intolerable. We expected a President, we got a junior parish priest … The link with the churches isn’t damaged! It was broken in 1905! Calling the separation of Church and State into question opens the door to fundamentalists of every religion. That’s irresponsible … Does Canon Macron now have it in mind to do a tour of the synagogues, mosques and churches?’
  • Marine Le Pen condemned the speech as a ‘major electoral ploy’ in preparation for the 2019 Euro-Elections, with fellow ultra-right FN leaders accusing Macron of the sin of communautarisme [the mortal sin of appealing to individual communities and not The Nation as a whole]
  • a good response from a Communist councillor in Paris: ‘Excess consumption of sacramental wine seriously damages your mental health.’

Articulate Government spokesperson, Griveaux, went on Europe 1 radio station almost instantly reassuring a (possibly?) disquieted nation that ‘While the French State is secular, French society is not’. He dismissed the ‘quasi-Pavlovian reactions of part of the French political class which condemns an hour-long speech with a 140 character tweet.’ He insisted there was ‘neither the slightest doubt nor the slightest change of position’ on the subject of laicity.

Some will interpret The Left’s vigorous condemnation of Emmanuel Macron’s speech as implying that it was seen by the Left as a means for the President to compose with the more ‘conservative’ forces in the country. But it’s never as simple as it seems. Indeed, before Macron spoke, the President of French Bishops’ Conference had called on the Government to take into account ‘the needs of the poorest’ in order to ‘build a nation that was fraternal, fair and showing solidarity’. Quoting the Pope, he called on communities to be ‘generous in their welcome’, especially piquant as far tougher immigration measures (strongly criticised by Catholic associations) were being driven through the National Assembly. Macron defended what he called his ‘realist humanism’. Still, the speech was good enough to get him a standing ovation at the end. Maybe they liked his ‘As Head of State, I am the guarantor of both a freedom to believe and not to believe, but I’m neither the inventor nor the creator of a State Religion which substitutes a Republican credo for divine transcendence.’

America-speak

The question of the day is: Has The Special Relationship became La Relation spéciale? Bromance? Or what? Before today’s arrival of President Macron as The First State Visitor To Trump’s America, some words on this most recent of Odd Couples.

‘Emmanuel Macron could be Trump’s Tony Blair … Macron-Trump is not quite the second coming of the Blair-Bush bromance.’ (Serhan in The Atlantic). Those trying to understand that unlikely Macron-Trump chemistry will enjoy the insightful Lauren Collins’s ‘The Bromance Myth of Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump’ in The New Yorker. And why leave out Alastair Campbell [actually, it’s easy to think of many reasons]? The new Editor-at-Large of the pointless New European has penned a pointless piece explaining why ‘Macron is the real heir to Tony Blair.’

Pollster-speak

The latest Ifop poll shows 42% support for President Macron. This starkly contrasts with his unhappy predecessors who, respectively, after a year in office, had the support of 21% (Hollande) and 28% (Sarkozy). Why such a semi-positive reaction? Because

  • he fulfils his promises (57%)
  • he has a coherent vision (58%)
  • he knows where he’s going (67%)
  • he’s authoritarian (73%) [the ‘strong man’ is liked]
  • he has authority (73%)

Lefty-speak

An only-occasionally-unfair hatchet job on the dangers of ‘centrist’ and ‘moderate’ Macron by always-readable Guardian left-wing commentator, Owen Jones, is worth reading. This sentence gives a good flavour: ‘Macron is a pound-shop Margaret Thatcher, redistributing wealth to those with too much of it, while assaulting workers’ rights and France’s hard-won social model.’ Maybe I’ve lived here too long, but the entire absence of any even semi-sensible alternative to Macron is surely the most disquieting feature of current French politics.

Jones comments on Macron: ‘Here is a man who owes his power to good luck rather than any vindication of his political philosophy.’ Don’t disagree at all. Thank goodness for all of us he was lucky: long-term readers of this blog will know I was deeply disquieted more than a few times during that Presidential campaign.

But one thing he wrote sent me back to wikipedia. Explaining why there’s so much current protest, and so little genuine support for his programme, Jones said:  ‘In the first round of the French presidential election, [Macron] scored less than a quarter of the vote, and not dramatically more than three other candidates including the far-right Marine Le Pen and radical left Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Macron’s thumping second-round victory was less an endorsement and more a rejection of fascism.’

So I looked up the vote previous Presidents had achieved in their own 1st round elections. Below are the percentage votes the 5th Republic Presidents got in their 1st rounds (NB the 1958 election’s excluded – it was an electoral college vote where the President wasn’t directly elected by universal suffrage).

Putting aside the ‘exceptional’ de Gaulle/Pompidou elections, can it really be said that Macron’s first round 24% [or, as Plenel helpfully put it to him in the TV debate, ‘18.1% of the electorate’] in any serious way de-legitimises him or explains why there’s protest? Surely not. In fact, I’d say it continues to be surprising how much support there appears to be for Macron continuing to carry through his programme.

  • 2017 – Macron 24%
  • 2012 – Hollande 29%
  • 2007 – Sarkozy 31%
  • 2002 – Chirac 20%
  • 1995 – Chirac 21% [Socialist Jospin led round 1 with 23%]
  • 1988 – Mitterand 34%
  • 1981 – Mitterand 26% [UDF Giscard d’Estaing led round 1 with 28%]
  • 1974 – Giscard d’Estaing 33% [Socialist Mitterand led round 1 with 43%]
  • 1969 – Pompidou 44%
  • 1965 – de Gaulle 45%

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