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

President Macrown.

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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.