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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”

Pauline Bock writes about France, the Macron presidency, Brexit and EU citizens in the UK. She also happens to be French.

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Technology can change the world – provided we have a measure of democracy, too

You could say we need a technological revolution for the many, not the few. 

Over the last five decades, the American Consumer Technology Association’s annual jamboree has grown to become the world’s largest tech show: attracting over 190,000 visitors and 4000 companies, with 7,460 reporters filing 59,969 reports over the course of four days in Las Vegas. In the process, it has achieved an almost mythical status – from unveiling the first-ever home VCR (Philips 1970) to Bill Gates’ resignation from Microsoft in 2006, and has included cameo appearances by the likes of Jay-Z and Barack Obama.

As a fully qualified geek (Electrical Engineering degree, 20 years in tech – before it was cool) and the shadow minister for Industrial Strategy Science and Innovation, I couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to venture to Las Vegas while on a family holiday to the US’ west coast; hoping, against all hope, to see the progressive future of a technology-enabled, more equal world.

If only.

But I did emerge with a renewed conviction that technology can solve our problems – if we use it to do so.

In some ways, the most remarkable thing about the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was the way it demonstrated how technology has taken over our entire world. CES was a car show in the middle of a health show, which happened to be around the corner from a home show, which was adjacent to a sports show that was next to an entertainment show. Just about every sector was represented.

Nissan had a huge stand for their new autonomous vehicle showcasing the ‘Brain-Vehicle Interface’, as did Philips for their new sleep enhancing devices, and Huawei for their connected home. In 2018, technology can be used as an enabling platform to aid just about everything. And in a world where near enough everything is politicised, technology is very political.

But this was not evident from CES: not from the stands, neither the keynotes, nor the participants. There were few speakers from civic society nor governments, and those politicians who attended – such as Donald Trump’s Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao – talked only of their ‘excitement’ at the sunlit uplands technology could guide us to. The show existed in its own, largely self-sufficient world. While Ford created an entire street to show off its autonomous cars, there was no reference to who would pay for the road, pavements, lamp-posts and guttering if only robots worked.

And as a politician rather than an engineer, it is the societal impact that matters most to me. One realisation brought about by my visit is that I have greatly under-estimated the consequences of driverless vehicles: communications, parking, urban layout, and public transport are all likely to be deeply impacted. The automobile industry is working to position cars as your personal moving office-cum-front room-cum-hotel-cum-lecture theatre; where you can work, maintain personal and social relationships, unwind and learn – all while going from A to B. How will crowded, under-funded public transport compete?

At the show, Nissan launched its Brain-to-Vehicle technology, which reads the driver’s brainwaves to determine when the car’s intelligence should intervene. Although I'm personally unsure about the inclusion of brain surveillance in the driving experience, it may well be the next logical step as we increasingly give up our data in return for ‘free’ services. Certainly the anthropologists at Nissan argued that this was the very definition of assisted artificial intelligence.

Fortunately, autonomous vehicles are not the only way to get around. Improvements in battery technology mean that – between electric scooters capable of folding away into airplane carry on, and electric bikes with the power of motorcycles – personal mobility has become a market in its own right.

Personal health and sport were also big themes at the event. Philips has brought back the night cap, which not only looks far more fetching than the Victorian original, but is now also capable of lulling you gently into a slumber before monitoring the quality of your sleep. Orcam’s discrete camera-glasses for the visually impaired can read text and recognise people, whilst L’Oréal’s UV Sense is a sensor small enough to be worn comfortably on your fingernail that detects ultraviolet exposure.

One aspect of the show that has remained largely unchanged is its demographics. Whilst the glossy adverts on the walls depict women and BME people using technology, those actually designing it were, with a few exceptions, male and largely white. As always, there were no queues for the women’s loos and while there were not any ‘F1 girls’, the gender balance was improved largely by attractive women, who were not engineers, being employed to ‘explain’ technological advances.

Weeks later, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos was also dominated by technology, which the Prime Minister used as a fig leaf to cover the absence of vision for Brexit. Lacking in both the CES and Davos, was any sense that the interests of the many had any significant stake in what was going on. We need a Labour government to help change that.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.