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The Macron Con #1: The French President's unhealthy obsession with symbolism

President Macrown.

This is the first in a series: “The Macron Con”, also called “Why Emmanuel Macron isn't a liberal hero”. Each week, I'll examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype.

The signs stretch back to April 2016, when Emmanuel Macron was still Francois Hollande’s economy minister. He launched a small “political club” called En Marche!, a group with no other aim than to bring together people who thought like him (that France needed modernising by liberal reforms). They also looked like him (young, well-educated, with a soft spot for entrepreneurs and all things startups) and most importantly, they liked him.

The name En Marche!, or EM! after Macron’s initials, gave the first clue to his ambitions. The obvious love of symbolism was coupled with a cult-like atmosphere. Early in the campaign, he became a meme on social media for ending a meeting with a grand, if completely meaningless shout: “Because it is our project!”, (handily avoiding the fact that the project had not yet been put together). What the media covered, what the voters heard about, what people shared on social media, was the man. Macron had turned his image into power.

On May 7, the night of his victory, Macron addressed a cheering crowd of supporters at the Louvre. All around him were symbols – the traditional French flags and Marseillaise chants; the message to the world he had wished to send by walking up on to the stage to the European anthem, Ode To Joy. The location was also hugely symbolic. As he spoke for the first time as president, Macron had chosen to stand by the Louvre’s Pyramid, on the square Cour Napoléon, at the museum that was once the home of the Kings of France. Of course, these symbols of grandeur suited what was a historic presidential win. After all, Macron is the youngest French ruler since Napoléon himself.

His diplomatic moves are also heavily draped in symbolism, particularly when entertaining the most powerful. When Vladimir Putin visited in May, Macron chose to host him at Versailles, the sumptuous palace that became the symbol of France’s absolute monarchy. When US president Donald Trump joins the Bastille Day celebrations tomorrow, he will be treated to a dinner at the top of the Eiffel Tower, a tribute on Napoleon's tomb and a military parade on the Champs-Elysées.

Perhaps the most obvious symbolism has come straight from Macron's own mouth long before he was elected President. In an interview in October 2016, when he was a candidate, he compared himself to Jupiter, the king of Roman gods, declaring that “France needs a 'Jupiterian' head of state.” He was comparing his mandate to that of Francois Hollande, who chose to play the “President Normal” card.

In an earlier interview in July 2015, when he was “only” Hollande’s minister, Macron shared a royalist opinion on French democracy. The lack of a King figure after the French revolution, he said, has left an “emotional, imaginary, collective void” and the democracy that followed had tried to “plough back” into this void. “What [the French] expected from the president of the Republic is that he would take up this seat,” he said, quoting Napoléon and Charles de Gaulle as examples. “Everything else built up on this misunderstanding.”

There is also his official photo, unveiled on June 29, resting upon his desk overloaded with symbols – flags, clocks, smartphones and books of French literature. A picture analysis in Liberation judged it “forced in its theatrality” and noted that the portrait’s “almost unsettling symmetry” recalled an “absolutist characterisation of power.... The very classical register reflects a theological-political vision of power.”


President Macron's official photo. Credit: Elysee Palace

He is already trying all he can to leave his mark on history. “Macron doesn’t have his own political history, so he is building himself one,” says French historian Christian Delporte. “His wish to go back to basics [of the French Republic] and his youth drive him to use many symbols.” The election night at the Louvre, Delporte says, is a good example of how Macron’s use of symbolism both embodies France’s history and the president’s ambitions. Kings lived at the Louvre castle from 1190 until 1681, when Louis XIV moved the court to Versailles.

“The Louvre doesn’t only represent France’s monarchy, as it became a museum after the Revolution,” said Delporte. “It represents France’s universal message, all of the world’s cultures. He chose the most symbolic place.” And although it shows “the splendor, the prestige of France” to international guests such as Putin, Versailles, too, is a democratic symbol – France’s first parliament sat there after the Revolution, and in 1961 Charles de Gaulle reintroduced the tradition of a governmental address to Congress in the former royal palace.

When Macron came back to Versailles, weeks after meeting Putin, for his “State of the Union”- style speech, he was once again following in De Gaulle’s steps. His walk to the Ode to Joy at the Louvre was a clear reference to Francois Mitterrand, who did the same thing when he won in 1981. “Two presidents who have marked France’s history, and both like Macron claimed to be “neither left nor right,”” Delporte says, noting that Mitterrand was the original “Jupiter”, from a nickname the press had given him. “The difference is that Macron self-proclaimed himself Jupiter.”

“After being elected President, people are always a bit big-headed,” Delporte adds. “We haven’t yet entered the normal phase. It’s with results that we judge a nation, not with symbols.” And while Macron’s ratings are holding up, his policies are not flying in the polls, he adds.

Phase 2 will start in the autumn, when parliament votes on the government’s labour reform, expected to be fiercely opposed by workers’ unions. That may well be where Macron’s love for historical symbolism finds its limits. The new president seems to have forgotten the first lesson in French history – from absolute monarchs to the founder of the Fifth Republic, France’s most iconic leaders all met their greatest challenge when people marched the streets.

Read more: The Macron Con #2: Emmanuel's “feminism”

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No More Girls and Boys shows the small things that shape children

The BBC2 TV series is validating and dispiriting at the same time. 

Here’s a story we like to tell ourselves. Once upon a time, we were sexist, but then feminism happened and now we’re not sexist anymore. But boys and girls carry on being different because they are different. Male brains are systematising and female brains are empathising, says Simon Baron-Cohen. Boys like blue and girls like pink, say the toy aisles. Men have a “drive for status”, and women have “openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas,” says that bloody Google engineer in his ten-page evo-psych anti-diversity manifesto. And if we are going to live happily ever after, we just have to learn to accept it.

Here are some other stories. “I think boys are cleverer than girls… because they get into president easily don’t they?” “I would describe a girl as being pretty, lipstick, dresses, lovehearts. If a woman has a child, the men have to go to work and earn some money.” “Men are better at being in charge.” “Men are better because they’re stronger and they’ve got more jobs.” All these are things said by year three pupils at Lanesend primary school in the Isle of Wight, both girls and boys, who by the age of seven have thoroughly imbibed the idea that their sex is their fate. All of them are about to take part in an experiment designed to unpick that belief.

That experiment is actually a BBC 2 documentary called No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? Presenter Dr Javid Abdelmoneim finds that the boys are more likely to overestimate their abilities; the girls, to underestimate theirs. Girls are underscoring on confidence; boys, on empathy. Abdelmoneim isn’t buying that this is all down to hormones or different physiques. At seven, boys and girls are evenly matched for strength, and will be until the testosterone surge of puberty has boys building muscle mass. There are no fixed differences in their developing brains. Genitals aside, they’re simply kids. He wants to see whether teaching the kids differently will lead to them thinking differently.

First, the classroom environment has to change so sex is no longer the first division. Signs are put up affirming that boys and girls are sensitive, girls and boys are strong. The “girls’ cupboard” and “boys’ cupboard” where the children put their coats are repainted as one big gender-neutral wardrobe. Stereotyped books are swapped out for ones about adventurous girls and kind boys. The children have their career expectations shaken up by meeting a male ballet dancer, a female mechanic. And their likeable teacher, Mr Andre, has to change too: he’s trained out of his habitual reference to the girls as “love” and the boys as “mate”, and introduced to a lottery system to break his habit of picking boys first.

It’s the smallness of these things that’s really telling of the hugeness of the problem. Individually, they seem so trivial as to barely seem worth fixing, and so ingrained that trying to fix them takes constant vigilance (Mr Andre’s slips into “love” and “mate” are recorded on a wall chart). No wonder sexism seems to be one of those things that everyone’s against but no one sees as their problem to fix. The head, for example, speaks regretfully of “quite biased views about what boys are expected to do and what girls are expected to do.” But somehow this has never translated into the kind of interventions Abdelmoneim is trying.

Does it work? That’s the cliffhanger for episode two, but the first part suggests some pretty dramatic results. When the children take part in a test-your-strength contest, the difference between expectation and performance lead to tears: a girl who happily cries “I didn’t think I could do it!” about her maximum score, and a boy who predicted himself a 10 but throws himself down on the ground in an angry tantrum when he fails to get a single point. How much stronger might girls be if they didn’t absorb the myth of their own weakness and opt out of physical activity early? How much more resilient would boys be if they weren’t holding themselves up to an unrealistic standard?

We won’t know the answer to that unless adults are able to stop telling the same dull old gender stories to children. In one scene, the documentary reenacts the famous Baby X experiments, showing how adults direct infant play down strictly sex-stereotyped lines, pressing dolls on the baby in pink, and robots and shape sorters on the one in blue. But given the opportunity to be themselves first rather than their sex, the children of Laneseed seem to thrive. In fact, the only reform they chafe at are gender neutral toilets. (“The girls were like, ‘Oh they [the boys] come out with their bits dangling out and they don’t wash their hands,’” Abdelmoneim told the Mail.)

Watching No More Boys and Girls is a strange experience, validating and dispiriting at the same time. Yes, you see the evidence of sexism in action that’s usually hidden in plain sight. You also see that there’s so much of it, it’s hard to know where to begin in countering it. Maybe we should start like this: stop insulting children by pretending their understanding of gender is hardwired at birth, and take some adult responsibility for the world we’ve put them in. 

No More Boys And Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? starts on BBC2 at 9pm on Wednesday.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.