The popular politician’s campaign is a choice example of how modern day democracy works. In France now too.
According to Régis Debray, the French philosopher and Marxist turned Republican, who was an adviser to Mitterand, and later a key proponent of the headscarf ban, there is an important distinction to be made between a republic and a democracy. In 1989, when France’s headscarf dilemma originally surfaced, Debray argued that a democracy was obsessed with business, advertising, and the media. ‘Opinion is the law’, he asserted, and ‘money is sacrosanct’. Debray insisted that while a republic is concerned with developing its institutions; a democracy is solely interested in communication. He took his theory further in L’obscenité démocratique, published in 2008, explaining that in democracies, it is all about the image, and the use of theatrical techniques to convey messages. For Debray these ‘democratic’ tendencies are ruinous to a society built around unifying positive values that affirm community. Civil society’s adherence to principals that give it coherence and shape is increasingly threatened by a capitalist society, whose key personalities are, ‘lawyers…journalists, publicity moguls, singers, actors, and businessman’. Such a society would usher in an individualistic, fractured society, void of an overarching value system. Now just think what Debray must think of Emmanuel Macron. No French politician better exemplifies Debray’s idea of a ‘democratic’ politician, whose self-promotion outstrips his programme, and who has benefited hugely from media exposure.
With the collapse of French Marxism in the 80s, and the enduring vacuum left by de Gaulle, Debray’s ideas have become embedded in France’s political discourse. A discourse that illustrates the country’s marked tendency to loudly affirm its attachment to a cohesive ideological identity, as it goes through profound social mutation. This discourse can be generally labelled neo-republicanism. It explains much in France. It underpins French notions of its own exceptionalism; sheds light on France’s delayed engagement with post-colonial studies; their disinclination to rally behind the American world order; and the country’s aversion toward cultural pluralism as an approach to integration.
But it also helps us to understand the disdain that many in the political establishment have toward Macron and this is a trend that transcends the left and right. Firstly there is Macron’s relationship with the media. Of all the candidates, he was clearly most favored. France 3, the equivalent to BBC 2 in England (except privately owned…) broadcast a flattering one and a half hour documentary on Macron, from his school days onwards. It made much of his dramatic flair as an adolescent, and his Hollywood romance with his drama teacher, and now wife, Brigitte. Apparently Brigitte’s name is chanted at Macron rallies, and she has quickly become a celebrity figure, appearing in Paris Match, and incessantly pictured in her glam. And there is of course the age difference, helping to promote Macron’s open-mindedness, and anti-ageist outlook.
Macron’s recent past, the saga of his rise outside the party ranks, the intrigue surrounding the somewhat unsolved rapport with Hollande, and the founding of his own movement, have all been picked up on heavily by the press, and by doing so have given more exposure to the personal story, than the programme. Macron has attracted scorn from those who resent the fact that an electoral campaign benefits so powerfully from the coalition between a media-cycle and the showy individual. The former Justice Minister under Hollande, Christiane Taubira, has been a vocal critic of how Macron has managed his campaign, criticizing it as a, ‘fluffy, superficial campaign that confused a political programme with a personal biopic’.
Of all the presidential candidates, Francois Fillon promoted himself as the exemplary neo-republican figure, who contrasted most to Macron’s marketeering approach. And Fillon wasted no opportunity to define himself in opposition to Macron. When Macron made headlines for calling French actions in Algeria ‘crimes against humanity’, Fillon used the incident to draw attention to Macron’s lack of principle, the essential element of the Republican politician. Speaking days after Macron’s bombshell, Fillon remarked,
…but only a few months ago, Mr. Macron found positive aspects to colonization. This shows that Mr. Macron has no spine whatsoever. He simply says what those who are listening want to hear.
And this was in strong contrast to Fillon, who presented himself as the man of integrity, with unchanging moral conviction. Towards the end of the campaign, with Fillon tussling for third with Melenchon, his camp made a point of expressing their ‘certainty’ that they would get into the second round, and spoke about the silent vote, the faithful. Fillon branded political integrity, with electoral loyalty, to emphasize the constancy, and representativeness of his politics, that ran deeper and possessed a faith, that the Macromania totally lacked. And it is in this context, more than any other, that Fillon’s pronounced hostility toward the media should be understood. In his efforts to attract all those distasted by Macron’s ‘democratic’ tendencies, Fillon’s strategy was to elicit Debray’s distinction, and appear as the upright republican, who defined himself in resistance to the baneful effects of the media-cycle, that was degrading politics into a talent show. ‘The whole problem with these debates’, Fillon argued on air, ‘is your (the producers) conception of them thinks only about the spectacle and not the substance’.
But Fillon’s opposition to Macron was never total. On losing in the first round, he called on his voters to vote Macron, and avoid the disaster of a Le Pen presidency. Yet a minor, though not insignificant number of his voters were ‘stupefied’ by Fillon’s advise. Amongst the right-wing Republicans, resentment to Macron is substantial. Its vice-president Laurent Wauquiez has refused to endorse Macron in the second round, arguing that,
…when Macron begins appointing Socialists to important government positions, the masks will quickly come off and everyone will realize that Macron is simply the continuation of Hollande… when the smoke disperses; everyone will realize that Macron is the left.
Like Fillon, Wauquiez uses the language of deceit and phoniness, to smear Macron’s campaign as dishonest, and anathema to his own party’s steadiness. Indeed the association between Hollande and Macron has been capitalized on by the Republicans to repudiate Macron’s frequently aired soundbite, to be ‘ni gauche, ni droit’ (neither left nor right).
Yet while the theory that Macron is the continuation of Hollande is reasonable enough, the Republicans’ particular version of it is off the mark. They’ve used Macron’s working relationship with Hollande, as advisor and later as economics minister, to paint large brush strokes implying that Macron is just the Socialists in a different guise. What the Republicans don’t say, is that the areas of agreement between Hollande and Macron are far more in line with traditional right-wing thinking, than the left.
Macron wants to cut red tape to promote investment and innovation, and is all for continuing the Crédit d’impôt pour la compétitivité et l’emploi (CICE), which has been the rather flaccid backbone of Hollande’s economic programme for the past five years.
The CICE, a form of backdoor austerity some argue, basically amounts to huge fiscal exemptions on big business in the hope that it will stimulate employment. Far from being socialist policies, they in fact threaten many achievements of the socialist state, by dismantling parts of the labor code, decreasing state provision, and exempting big business from fiscal contributions. This is the real similarity between Hollande and Macron. And with Macron, this liberalizing approach is likely to be notched up a few gears.
In getting to where he is despite (a), his close links to the financial elite, i.e. the Rothschilds, and all the anti-capitalist sentiment that comes with it, and (b), the most unpopular president in French history, Macron has shown just how much communication and promotion matter. In his speeches, he often evoked the image of la France bloquée (a blocked France). He describes France as ‘stuck’, and unable to advance. His campaign slogan translated as Forward!, and as one girl explained to me very enthusiastically, ‘Macron sees politics through a whole new prism that isn’t left and right, but innovator and conservator’. The concept of la France bloquée is not new, but widely known. It was first conceived by the sociologist Michel Crozier, in his 1970 essay la société bloquée. Yet while Crozier diagnosed multiple aspects of France as ‘blocked’, it was the world of business, that most took on board his views, as the historian Emile Chabal explains,
…la société bloquée has become widely accepted beyond the confines of the academy. This is true, most of all, of the world of business, where Crozier’s explicit efforts in the 1980s to reform French managerialism, and in the 1990s to demonstrate the importance of an ‘economy of innovation’, provided valuable alternative models to French business.
More than ever, France’s ‘blocked’ state is construed from the fact that for the past thirty years, successive presidents have tried in vain to solve the country’s enduring unemployment and economic decline. Macron’s solution to this is an ‘economy of innovation’. Yet in practical terms, Macron’s approach to attaining such an economy, involves discarding many socialist ideals, and going soft on the wealthy. The 39 year old wants to do away with legislation against unfair dismissal, and substantially reduce inheritance tax. Furthermore, the loi Macron (Macron law), passed in the summer of 2015 of Hollande’s presidency, was heavily criticized for attacking French labor laws. The Socialist deputy Fanélie Carrey-Contre denounced the law’s ‘liberal diagnostic……the theory underlying all these articles is that if there isn’t enough employment, it’s because the labor market is too rigid’. The law professor at Paris-Ouest-Nanterre, Pascal Lokiec, remarked at the time that the, ‘government has an openly hostile philosophy toward the labor code, never before seen on the left’.
And during Macron’s time as economics’ minister, Hollande was the restraining force, concerned with ensuring Macron didn’t rustle too many Socialist feathers, the party to whom Hollande owed his political career. But the reality is that if Hollande was seen to be undoing the achievement of the left, Macron was a principal player in this process, who, had he had a freer hand, would’ve gone further. Yet if this is Macron’s solution to a ‘blocked’ society, it is not one that he wishes to emphasize. The French are deeply committed to their labor code, which incarnates a sort of sacrosanct socialist ideal. You only need to look at the nationwide fury that broke out last summer in reaction to the loi El-Khomri, to realize that Macron’s anti-labor position is not one that would boost his electoral prospects.
And this is where his communications strategy comes in. The primary obstacles that are according to Macron, ‘blocking’ France, i.e. labor code, high taxes, lack of pro-business incentive, are defended as sacred-cows by the traditional left, and Macron, as a centrist, cannot afford such a direct confrontation. Therefore, while Macron has continued to fashion his whole campaign around ‘unblocking’ France, his most notorious publicity stunts tend to use other issues, to promote this progressive vision for France. The best example of this is his comments on Algeria that caused uproar, and totally dominated the newspapers for at least a week. Days later he defended his comments,
Today France is blocked by the sad passions of its history that prevents us from advancing. I refuse to abandon an aspect of our identity to paralysis.
Macron’s promotion of his forward thinking agenda to ‘unblock’ France has relied on controversial statements, and a milked discourse on issues linked to historical memory, and cultural identity, instead of the more pertinent but thorny issues of fiscal policy and labor laws. Another example of these theatrics is his claim that ‘there is no such thing as French culture’, that again caused uproar, again most notably from Fillon, his diametric opposite throughout the campaign. Apart from controversial soundbites, Macron also milked an inclusive discourse on cultural identity, that helped promote a favorable contrast to his main rival, Marine Le Pen. Yet Macron at times over-indulged this discourse to the point of cringe,
…it (French culture) is a river, made up of multiple streams….we are all roots, and because we are roots, there are trees beside us. There are rivers, and fish, there are brothers and sisters…
But while Algeria and cultural identity have been used to promote his vision of ‘unblocking’ France, such issues are less pertinent to Macron’s own ideas about Crozier’s blocked thesis, which, as already mentioned, hinge on dismantling labor laws and pro-business reform. Their relevance is reflected in his programme, for those motivated enough to read it, but drowned out by his promotional rhetoric that over-indulges in fluffy, Trudeau-like discourse, and deliberately controversial soundbites. By doing so, Macron’s whole campaign has shifted attention away from the programme of unblocking France, and more onto the vision of what an unblocked France would like. As he himself put it, ‘we don’t care about programs. What matters is the vision’. Why? Because it’s all about the brand.