President Macron loves language. He revels in the use of language few can have heard. A literary man. Latin, Italian, Arabic, Old (especially very old) French: all effortlessly, and variously, called up. Not necessarily helpful to exclude some who might try to listen.
Sometimes he adopts a linguistic version of the ‘chameleon effect’ – the tendency to imitate another person’s speech inflections and physical expressions, part of the instinct to “empathise and affiliate” with others. The President uses language modulated for his audience. When he’s the go-getting entrepreneur, he urges his supporters to be disruptifs, speaks of building une ‘start up nation‘ while saying that ‘la démocratie est le système le plus bottom up de la terre‘. Down with the entrepreneurial kids all right. But, in his wider audience, many can’t get it.
Again, the President all-too-often uses language demeaning the person he’s addressing (‘I can find you a job just by crossing the road’ he told an unemployed gardener, suggesting he should be a waiter). By extension, so many others are equally been demeaned. Latterly, he ate some humble pie for being careless about what he says, but the after-effects linger long.
It’s worth recalling some stunning Presidential foot in Presidential mouth examples (all of which help explain the way many react to Emmanuel Macron):
- ‘a station is a place where you bump into people who are successful and people who are nothing’ [inaugurating Station F (the world’s largest start-up incubator) created inside an old station]
- ‘French Gauls resistant to change’ [addressing the Danish monarch, when in Denmark, contrasting the flexi-Danes with the unflexi-French]
- ‘the poor can travel more easily’ [initiating the Macron-liberalised coach routes]
The President continues his linguistic gymnastics still. Dismissively referring to demands for re-imposition of the Wealth Tax – he said his position wasn’t a matter of ‘taboo’ or ‘totem’ but that it would be useless. He gave it straight to 600 rural Mayors when responding to a question about the re-imposition of the Wealth Tax: ‘You mustn’t tell fibs. It’s not as if reimposing the Wealth Tax, as it was a year and a half ago, would improve the life of one single gilet jaune. That’s just de la pipe.’ [Now what does that last phrase mean, please? It’s a favourite Macron expression – this is the 4th time he’s used it in a couple of years. It’s certainly obsolete. Is it a replacement for pipeau ie not serious or bullshit? Or some much heavier slang altogether? What games he plays.]
Macron’s Great Debate.
In early December, President Macron dished out pre-Xmas goodies to many of the lower-paid (eg €100 extra/month for many on the minimum wage; withdrawing a tax on pensioners’ income) but the largesse had extremely modest tangible effects in calming the gilets jaunes’. Even €10 billion of Presidential goodies doled out at the lower paid, and cancellation of previously immutable tax rises and energy price rises failed to assuage.
By way of a follow-up, the President announced two months of Great Debate. Until 15 March. All would be invited to participate. Citizen’s forums, with people chosen at random, would discuss The Great Issues. Four overarching themes:
- taxation and public spending
- the organisation of the state and public services
- the ecological transition and
- democracy and citizenship.
This would surely allow the nation to raise much of what troubled it. Though we soon learnt, for the avoidance of doubt, certain subjects were not for discussing.
But what actually’s the point of all this debating? Can all the hurt be smoothed over by the sweet balm of debate? Will over-excited tempers be tempered by learned disputation? Will BFM TV be forced to seek alternative late Saturday afternoon coverage to people throwing things (rocks and tear-gas alike)? How does tranquility return? After ten consecutive Saturdays of demonstrations, over two months, do people really want to turn to debate … especially when the follow-up is so utterly unclear?
Doubtless, it will have pleased the Executive to learn that pollster OpinionWay found 87% had heard of The Great Debate. A very high level of recognition. However, the punchline that over half the nation has no intention of participating will not be welcome news. And pollster Elabe found just 40% intending to make their voices heard.
The President launched The Great Debate last Sunday writing his promised letter to every citizen.
A very, very long letter. 2,346 words. Double spaced. Short sentences. Available in English on the Presidential website, it comes replete with elegant Presidential handwriting topping and tailing its five pages. It’s extremely readable. I have to admit, it’s difficult to imagine anything quite as ambitious (is that really the mot juste?) as this being even tried elsewhere. Or does it merely show just how desperate Government has become?
There are said to be serious discussions about the advisability of sending a copy of The Letter through the post into everyone’s homes. Finance Minister Darmanin is strongly urging that it be done to enhance the democratic debate still further. After all, said he, it’ll only cost somewhere between 5-10 million Euros. Maybe it’ll all be taken more seriously if it’s on good old-fashioned paper. Cheap at the price?
[Publishing The Letter in English, as well as in its version originale, is helpful for a much wider audience. The added bonus in the English text is there’s a really good attempt to explain the challenging (and important) French concept of laïcité, which I’ve previously grappled with. The Elysée retains the word laïcité in their English version, translating it as ‘secularism’, and then refer to a footnote – ‘laïcité goes beyond the concept of secularism, embracing the strict neutrality of the state’ … all of which begins to be comprehensible once you’ve lived here years.]
Emphasising this is ‘a major national debate’, the President asserts ‘no question is off limits’. [Sorry. More fibs.] He does recognise matters have moved up the emotional scale. ‘I know, of course’ he says ‘that some of us today are dissatisfied or angry. Because taxes are too high for them, public services too remote, salaries are too low for some to be able to make a decent living from the fruits of their labour, because our country does not offer people from different backgrounds the same opportunities to succeed.’
Then he sets out over 30 possible questions and invites comments and suggestions.
- Should we hold more referendums and, if so, who should initiate them? (a leading gilet jaune demand)
- What is the right amount of proportional representation in parliamentary elections to ensure that there is a fairer representation of all political projects?
- Should we recognize blank ballot papers? Should we make voting compulsory? [the former is also an issue much highlighted by the demonstrators]
- Are there too many civil service and local authority levels?
But there are important no go areas: ‘We will not go back over the measures we have taken … to encourage investment and ensure that work pays more. These have just been voted through and are only just starting to deliver results. Parliament will evaluate them …’ So no going back on that abolished Wealth Tax. Finance Minister Darmanin drove the point home on Radio Classique, saying people mustn’t ‘rehash the Presidential Election campaign’, pithily concluding ‘The Wealth Tax is an idiotic tax’. That told us.
President Macron wrote that citizens’ contributions will ‘build a new contract for the nation’ and explained ‘This is how I intend to turn anger into solutions with you’.
He finished his letter with more linguistic originality. He signs off with what Le Figaro describes as the ‘abstruse’ phrase En confiance [in English that becomes ‘Yours in trust’]. A thoroughly ‘original’ way of signing off a letter. Meaning what? He has confidence in the debate? He has no worries? He has to say things differently?
In France, the ways of ending a letter you’ve written are many, varied and infinitely gradated. They are called formules de politesse for good reason. How appropriate that the President should have contributed to the ever-lengthening list of such formules.
Macron’s No-Go (and, surprisingly, not-so-no-go) Topics
It’s not just the Wealth Tax that’s been formally ruled out of order in advance.
There’s another delicate subject. Not a word on Europe. No, the complex issues of the E.U. are evidently for another time and place. It seems that discussion of the issues raised by the previously much-heralded fight between Europhile Macron and Populist Eurosceptic Salvini/Orban will be ruled out of order by the moderator of this chat forum.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. We are reminded in The Letter that being a citizen means ‘helping to decide the country’s future by electing representatives at local, national and European levels’ – though there’s no hint the latter’s 4 months away.
But the President does raise one ‘difficult’ Franco-European issue. He writes: ‘Our country has always been able to welcome those fleeing war and persecution, who sought refuge on our soil: this is the right of asylum, which cannot be called into question.’ And then, just as he tangentially mentioned the issue of immigration when addressing the nation at the height of the gilets jaunes demonstrations, he brings the issue up again now. ‘This tradition’ [of welcome for asylum-seekers] ‘is being rocked today by tensions and doubts linked to immigration and the failures of our integration system.’
As if dog-whistling a message in a rightwards direction, Macron’s letter suggests questions for reflection: ‘What do you propose for improving the way our nation integrates people? As regards immigration, once our asylum obligations have been fulfilled, would you like us to be able to set ourselves annual targets defined by Parliament? What do you propose to tackle this challenge which will last?’
I don’t recall annual immigration targets being an issue before. Did I miss something? That nudge (or is it a bleeding great shove?) feels extremely uncomfortable.
Macron’s SEVEN hour stand-up Q&A
For many weeks, the President abandoned his regular Meet The People sorties. Far too many members of the security forces had to be mobilised for him to indulge in any Presidential flesh-squeezing. Indeed, leaping into a bain de foule [walkabout, literally crowd-bathing] has become almost too dangerous, in view of the possible unpredictability of the crowd … and maybe his own mouth too.
Before the President arrived at his first Meet The Mayors session, he made a surprise call. Accompanied by his Minister for Local and Regional Government, Macron arrived almost entirely unannounced (the Mayor alone knew) at a Council Meeting in Gasny (2016 population: 3085). And what should he do, but put his verbal foot in it.
‘I’m expecting a lot from this Great Debate’, announced the President to the 20 Gasny councillors, back in hyper-positive mood: ‘We live in the country of the Lumières [Enlightenment]. We had a Revolution. We are re-inventing our democracy.’
And then, we learnt from Le Figaro, the President expounded a view on poverty. He told the Councillors: ‘For people in a difficult situation we try to get them to take responsibility. Some do the right thing, while others fool around.’ That ‘colloquial’ phrase ‘fool around’ (déconner) was quickly doing the rounds as confirmation of the view the President has of his impoverished fellow-citizens.
After Gasny’s 20 Councillors, it was onward to Meet 600 Mayors in the gym of a small Normandy town, Grand Bourgtheroulde. This place, with its less than 4,000 people, had been transformed into a near-fortress: 10 groups of mobile gendarmes, 7 CRS companies and 300 local gendarmes.
And then there was talk, an awful lot of it.
If all ten meetings of the ‘Grand Tour of Greater France’s Mayors’ are handled similarly, the President will have spoken in Castro-ite proportions. And, perhaps, been heard too. BFM TV covered the entire session and got themselves an almost-unheard-of million plus audience. Over 700,000 watched the entire 6 HOURS 40 MINUTES. The Hunger for Politics Games?
The President began the session, after barely polite applause, by promising he wouldn’t speak ‘for too long, since the objective is above all to listen to you’. He ended up talking for a mere three and a half hours in total, responding with Macronian depth to each subject raised.
At the end, he got a very long (and apparently sincere) standing ovation. He wound up (just before 10pm) by advocating (threatening?) ‘a Republic of permanent deliberation’ rather than one of permanent referenda. He clearly enjoyed it all a lot. Back on the road again. Nothing but words being thrown. Fighting (again) to (re-)launch his Presidency:
Hugger-mugger, surrounded by 600 Mayors. It was back to those great days of the Presidential campaign, when it all seemed so much easier. Poetry then, prose now.
In the Dordogne area, 3 days later, the show went on in Souillac …
and before he met all those south-west Mayors, he stopped to meet some Real People. That was his first such encounter since early December.
Lots of other debates are being organised throughout France. 200 this weekend alone, and from the Debate website 300 more are already planned … even one in Galway.
Macron and History
Even before his Letter to the People, and the President’s initial Mayor-Meetings, activities had got underway in many local town halls.
Mayors had invited their local citizenry to write their ideas and complaints in Cahiers de Doléances (complaints books).This is a practice that dates back many centuries. However, by far its most famous use was ordered by Louis XVI who wanted to know what each of the Three Estates (Clergy, Nobility and The Rest) were thinking.
That didn’t end happily. In fact, tomorrow’s the anniversary of That Unhappy Ending.
Act IX (12 January) of the gilets jaunes‘ Saturday activities showed a further re-strengthening of the movement. [This numerisation really has been great for enabling far wider usage of Roman numerals … tho’ it’s introduced some hesitation about yesterday’s event. Several people decided to re-adopt Arabic numeration and, suddenly, it was Acte 10 being announced on Facebook.] The Interior Ministry counted 84,000 demonstrators over France as a whole last Saturday, an increase from the previous week’s 50,000. As many as 6,000 trekked to Bourges: the town closest to France’s centre.
19 January’s Act X (or should that be 10?) saw a rise in numbers in certain towns: 10,000 demonstrated in Toulouse, beating the previous week’s record of 6,000. Overall, the Interior Ministry said there were again 84,000 demonstrators on 19 January. A suspiciously symmetrical number? Perhaps that’s why the gilets jaunes have shown signs of ‘structure’ by beginning to produce their own version of the number of demonstrators: they’ve claimed the brilliantly precise number of 86,110 (accompanied by full detailed explanatory breakdown town by town) and included moderately amusing, if unoriginal, fake quotes eg Interior Minister Castaner: In France there are 3 types of gilets jaunes: those who know how to count and those who don’t.
On this Tenth Saturday – a day when the temperature was barely above freezing in Paris throughout the day with lots of near-snow – three separate Paris marches were approved, one of which was a 15km route around Paris.
The marches looked far more organised than previously. A number of ‘white vests’ were available in the event of injuries to demonstrators. There were also ‘stewards’ for the march – one of whom was identified by BFM TV as a well-known member of the neo-military ultra-right who’d recruited people in the past to go to fight in the Donbass region of Ukraine ‘against’ the Russian advance. Plus there are several more deeply unpleasant ultra-right anti-semites lurking on the edges of the gilets jaunes actvities.
But lately there’s been far more emphasis on injuries. Left-wing paper Libération has set up a fact-checking arm at CheckNews.fr. They’ve tried to establish the total number of demonstrators and journalists injured. They calculate that following Act IX (12 January) 94 had been seriously injured in all, including 69 injured by shots from Defence Bullet Launchers (formerly known as Flashball).
[For those wanting to look at the weapons used by the police in riot situations here’s the Verney-Carron Security website. It advertises what is described as their ‘LESS LETHAL PROJECTILE LAUNCHER, DESIGNED EXCLUSIVELY FOR PROFESSIONAL USES BY THE VARIOUS FORCES THAT ARE CONFRONTED WITH LAW ENFORCEMENT, ZONE SECURING AND DEMOCRATIC CROWD’ (sic, or should that be sick?)].
The weapon shoots 40mm rubber/foam ‘bullets’ at a speed of up to 100m per second. CheckNews claims that at least 14 people, thus far, have lost an eye.
Here’s a report (in French) about a Bordeaux demonstrator in a coma following his having been shot in the head with a LBD40 projectiles. The police claim these weapons are absolutely necessary for their protection. I’m fully prepared to believe that: there have been some frighteningly aggressive attacks against the police. But that many demonstrators with serious head injuries seems to show that the police have been using these highly dangerous weapons inappropriately.
The thuggish violence and destruction caused by (mostly) non-gilets jaunes – which marked the end of the Saturday demonstrations – plus the passage of time has all contributed to the drop in numbers of those demonstrating. But the effect of the Great Debate? It’s not at all clear that this has done very much, thus far, other than raise the level of cynicism.
Macron and his erstwhile colleague Benalla
At least somebody seems likely to get what they deserve. Last summer, everyone revelled in BenallaGate. Former Presidential bodyman, Benalla, was finally arrested in connection with his having beaten up May Day demonstrators, all the while falsely (and illegally) wearing police insignia and uniform. He’s still awaiting news of his probable trial. President Macron took an unconscionably long time to ‘let M. Benalla go’, long after it appeared that mere acquaintance of this man was likely to be Seriously Damaging To One’s Health.
Benalla – and his ability to have led such a charmed life thus far – is constantly referred to by the gilets jaunes as demonstrating the way in which the system variously operates depending on who is being dealt with.
But now The Authorities seems to have decided to bring out all guns against Benalla. He’s seemingly been a very naughty boy. He’s likely to face further charges for having falsely used a diplomatic passport – fraudulently obtained – on some 20 occasions. Plus he illegally kept his ultra-secret hi-tech telephone (as used by the inner Presidential corps) long after he’d been sacked. Hell hath no fury like an Establishment scorned.
Epilogue – RIP UK
From the Europe Editor of Channel 4 News
Epilogue to the Epilogue
A personal favourite line (among oh-so-many) is about Arlene Foster, leader of Northern Ireland’s right-wing ultras in the Democratic Unionist Party (among those who still have ‘confidence’ in Her Majesty’s Lackless Government): ‘[She] still has all the warmth of the matriarch of a remote farm who retains the passports of her labourers’.