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Emmanuel Macron's businesslike media strategy is worrying the French press

The new president's media style is more reminiscent of corporate PR than traditional political briefings.

This is the third 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. Read the whole series.

Emmanuel Macron had been elected for 11 days when the press first protested. The new French president was heading to Mali for his first diplomatic visit, and his press office announced they would start choosing the journalists who would be allowed to cover it. This did not go down well.

“Mr President, it is not up to the Elysée to choose its journalists,” was the headline of an open letter signed by a dozen journalists’ unions from France’s most prominent media outlets, including Le Monde, Liberation, Le Figaro, public radio and TV, and the organisation Reporters Without Borders. “None of your predecessors have used such a system,” the editorial read. “As defiance is weighing more and more on information, choosing the journalist who will report on your trips adds to confusion between communication and journalism, and harms democracy.”

According to the Elysée, the number of accredited journalists on the Mali trip – lower than normal – was due to security reasons (Mali has been engulfed in armed conflict since 2012). “We cannot organise a trip to Mali, especially in such short notice, with the military context and the risks, in improvised conditions,” said the government’s spokesman, Christophe Castaner. “We will give our preference for each trip, based by reporting beats.”

He added that the president wishes to have the “liberty of exchange with the French people” during trips, which a group of dozens of journalists and cameras could hamper. Macron’s press office later added: “Worried journalists can rest: the Elysée does not plan to do the newsrooms’ job.”

But a month later, in June, an editorial in Le Monde newspaper called for vigilance again. “Does the new executive power have a problem with freedom of the press?” it asked, listing “extremely worrying signs” of the government’s “conception of media’s independence and source protection”. This included several cases of government ministers or En Marche! MPs filing complaints for “harassment” and “violation of professional confidentiality”. Reporters Without Borders’ Christophe Deloire said: “We wait for proof that limits will not be imposed on the press for storytelling needs. We are expecting Emmanuel Macron to defend the freedom of the press in France as well as abroad.”

Independent news website Mediapart was one of three media organisations against which the Labour ministry filed a complaint, after it reported on the planned labour law reform. “They filed a complaint to know the journalists' sources within the ministry, so that they could silence them [the sources],” Mediapart director Edwy Plenel says. Protestation forced the ministry to withdraw, he says, but the reflex illustrates the presidency's “contrast between an seemingly liberal economic speech and the ancient French culture of personal power and vertical politics”.  

These incidents marked a sharp contrast from Macron’s campaign press stance. Before the election, on International Press Freedom day, his party’s spokesperson had praised the media, declaring: “Continue to irritate us – there lies freedom.”

A French journalist, who knows the Elysée well and who declined to be named, confirms that “it's a permanent struggle” to liaise with the presidency, but adds that the situation is improving. “When the justice minister called the radio that was investigating him, when the Labour ministry filed a complaint against a newspaper, these were alerts,” she says. “But he [Macron] is starting to give more interviews. Difficulties are coming, and he will have to speak up to defend his policies.”

She reckons Macron's relationship with the press will smooth with time, as all presidents want to “make their mark” when they arrive.

Shaking off old Elysée press rules is part of a bigger trend in Macron’s strategy. His campaign team and, since his election, his government, refer very often to the business model as a mode of government, media sociologist Jean-Marie Charon tells the New Statesman. “Private companies have a much more interventionist approach towards journalists," he says. "For instance, by choosing which journalists will have access to which information, or will be accredited on a trip.”

French political journalists, who have long been used to close proximity with the country’s leaders even if this transparency was “often calculated”, are confused by this new way of dealing with the media, he says. “Now sometimes the press team closes the Elysée’s doors, they don’t take questions at press conferences or just don’t hold one.”

Socio-anthropologist Agnès Vandevelde-Rougale shares this analysis: the Elysée is handling the press like a company would, she says: “Journalists are told off [by Macron’s press team]. They are told that they don’t understand the real world, the pressure of productivity.”

The government uses blurry words and concepts, such as "responsibility" or "efficiency", she says, just like a company would. “There is communication but very little information, a lack of exchange with journalists.” The French journalist agrees: "When we talk to the Elysée or En Marche! MPs, they sound like communication professionals, use English words."

Read more: Episode 2: Emmanuel Macron's "feminism"

During the campaign, Macron’s astonishing rise was facilitated by social media. “He embodies the web generation and intends to address directly his audience and voters,” Charon says. “There is a parallel with Charles de Gaulle, who was the first to use television, which he controlled and used to get his message across without the press. Macron follows the same logic: he is using a rising media, one the young professionals favour.”

Macron’s 1.6 million Twitter followers are often first to hear from the president, who has “rarified his appearances” – he even skipped the usual Bastille Day presidential TV interview  because his “complex thought process” didn’t lend itself well to the format. That, too, is from the private sector’s communication strategy. “Often, the CEO does not do interviews,” Vandevelde-Rougale says.

Would his own media suit, then? In July, Macron’s party En Marche! announced that it would “constitute itself as a media” to “make decentralised content” on local news. “If the media doesn’t go, we will,” they declared. It sparked more controversy, but to Charon, this is nothing new: “In the old French opinion press model, each political party had its newspaper. De Gaulle had La Nation.”

Most of these newspapers, with the exception of L’Humanite, have disappeared because, he says, “this is a completely out-of-date model.” To the French journalist, the party's project will be “some kind of media, maybe, but not press.”

Although he draws inspiration from De Gaulle, Macron has been working hard to differentiate himself from his direct predecessors – Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012) was prone to mentioning his private life in press briefings and Francois Hollande (2012-2017) shared a proximity, and even friendship, with numerous journalists that led his confidences to be published by two reporters under the title “A president shouldn’t be saying this”.

From the start, Macron made it crystal clear that his style was different. “I will take some distance from the media circle,” he said during the presidential campaign. “When one presides, one isn’t friends with journalists.” To Charon, the new president’s media strategy could mark his wish for a full break from the past, to allow him to define a new relationship with the press – but these harsh new rules could also be here to stay. 

This would be a worrying trend. If using the private sector’s practices to boost France’s efficacy may not be entirely irrelevant, Charon argues, adopting a business media strategy when the state has a duty of transparency and to report to the French people “is a lot more questionable”. The risk for Macron if he keeps serving journalists polished PR reports is that the press will double down to find news, the French journalist says. “It sends the press back to its fundamental role: close the door, we'll enter by the window.”

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

Emmanuel Macron. Credit: Getty
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Is Emmanuel Macron a neoconservative? French politics and the legacy of 1968

The neoconservatives defined themselves in opposition to the French student protests of 1968. 

Ten years ago, a young French philosopher by the name of Serge Audier penned a polemical book on the legacy of May 1968 in France. Titled, La pensée anti-68, Audier expressed his worry that in the candidacy of Nicolas Sarkozy, France was seeing the importation of an “American” discourse on the right. Sarkozy famously denounced Mai 68 as the source of contemporary France’s problems. The student revolts against bourgeois society introduced a “relativism”, he argued, that undermined national identity, the spirit of honest work, and the institutions of democracy.

Audier observed this rhetoric to be essentially identical to that of the American neoconservative thinkers who played a key role in Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory and had served as a core element of the American right since then. At the time, neoconservatism was potentially on the wane in the US, due to the candidacy of Barack Obama. Yet Audier worried that as an “international tendency,” it had a long life ahead of it on the continent. Needless to say the book created a stir in France.

Audier was right that neoconservatism is an “international tendency,” and it has a history on both sides of the Atlantic. But as the 50th anniversary of Mai 68 approaches, this once-ascendant ideology now looks rather different.

Neoconservatism was a term coined in the 1970s to refer to a group of liberal intellectuals who turned to the right in response to the student movements of the late 1960s. These thinkers – including Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, and Nathan Glazer – believed that the students revolts at Berkeley, Columbia and Cornell signaled that the left had gone too far (the role of organised labour in the uprisings on both sides of the Atlantic were not a part of their story). America's Mai 68 set these “vital centre” post-war liberals against the radicals they believed to be increasingly in control of the discourse on the American left. In the face of students’ rejection of the “establishment,” the neoconservatives sought to reinforce the legitimacy of liberal democracy, the authority of political and technocratic elites, and the validity of bourgeois culture. They were liberals convinced that only conservatism could save liberalism.

 

By the time Reagan ran for president in 1980, many of these neoconservatives had begun to support the Republican Party. They believed the Democrats had been misled by the ideas of the New Left, both in its rejection of bourgeois norms and, most importantly, in matters of geopolitics. While Democrats looked to George McGovern, a foreign policy dove, the neoconservatives embraced Reagan’s hardline stance against the Soviet Union. A number of these neoconservatives, such as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and Robert Kagan, were members of Reagan’s administration, serving in strategic and diplomatic positions.

Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, neoconservatives continued to play a central role on the American right. They denounced the individualistic decadence of American liberalism of the 1990s, marked by what they described as a culture of “political correctness.” This, they argued, was an egalitarianism pushed to the extreme. Such a culture atomised society into increasingly miniscule categories of personal “identity.”  This 1990s liberalism was, of course, inspired by the neoconservatives’ old enemies, the ‘68 radicals, now reincarnated as university professors.

At the moment of America’s geopolitical victory against the Soviets, the neoconservatives called for unity around projects for “national greatness.” Under the mandate of George W Bush, numerous neoconservatives, veteran “hawks” of Cold War geopolitics, saw in the invasion of Iraq the perfect opportunity to advance such a project.

This neoconservatism – that of Reagan and Bush, the Cold War and the “War on Terror” – appears to many in Europe as a specially American phenomenon. Yet we find intellectual equivalents of neoconservatism across the continent, and above all in France. In particular, the journal Commentaire has long served as a space for exchange between American neoconservatives and French liberal-conservative opponents of the legacy of Mai 68. The journal was founded by a number of prominent students of Raymond Aron, a respected liberal philosopher who became increasingly conservative after the publication of his critique of Mai 68, entitled La révolution introuvable. In the pages of Commentaire, one finds not only a project of interpreting the classic texts of liberalism through a conservative angle, but also an ongoing critique of the 1960s and its influence on societies on both sides of the Atlantic. Its title is a direct translation of Commentary, the neoconservative magazine run by Norman Podhoretz. Along with other US neoconservatives, Podhoretz served on Commentaire’s editorial board, and much of these American neoconservatives’ understanding of what was dangerous about the 1960s were informed by their French colleagues’ critiques of Mai 68.

Aside from a brief flair with Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in the 1970s, these French neoconservatives never found the political home that their American counterparts did in the Republican Party. Today, however, the inheritors of this intellectual orientation find themselves more and more isolated from the major currents of political thought in both countries.

In the United States it was not the hopeful progressivism of Barack Obama that ended neoconservatism’s dominance, but the right-wing nationalism of Donald Trump. By driving the Republican Party far to the right, away from its liberal base, he galvanized a small group of “Never Trump” Republican holdouts that are mainly neoconservatives, such as William Kristol, David Brooks, and David Frum. These thinkers are both highly visible and nonetheless increasingly marginal within the conservative movement. To them, Trump's childlike behaviour and openness to Russia are no less reprehensible than anti-bourgeois revolts of ‘68 and the “détente” policy of the 1970s. Neoconservatism today is often little more than anti-Trumpism, and as a result many of today’s prominent neoconservatives are barely distinguishable from moderate “Resistance” Democrats.

The post-Gaullist right of Nicolas Sarkozy never became the figurehead of a liberal-conservative revival in France. Today, the former president and his political heir Laurent Wauquiez represent a far less liberal right than ten years ago. French neoconservatism remains a purely theoretical construct. As for Commentaire, although it continues to publish the neoconservative school in this illiberal moment, one of the journal’s key figures, the philosopher Pierre Manent, maintain links with members of the French New Right such as Alain de Benoist. 

Is Emmanuel Macron a neoconservative? The young president is certainly attached to a certain idea of liberalism, and even if he wants to move beyond “right and left,” his program is clearly that of the moderate right. But Macron disavows any conservative character of his policy. He does not claim to seek to restore order or reinforce cultural identity, but rather to enact “reforms” and “liberate” France’s economic energies. Macron does not denounce Mai 68, and has even suggested a desire to celebrate it.

We have not yet seen the full impact on our societies of the seismic shock of Mai 68 on both sides of the Atlantic. But as for the once powerful neoconservative enemies of this revolt and its legacy, it is difficult to imagine their place in our radically transformed political world.

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins is a lecturer in the religion department at Yale University. Jacob Hamburger is the editor of Tocqueville 21​.