“Now that’s your political heroism”: the strange case of Macron and the deferential media

The French president’s media strategy keeps changing. It’s puzzling for journalists and experts alike, and may come back to harm him.

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Picture this: A BBC journalist interviews Theresa May as they stroll down the corridors of No 10. They walk by her office, stop at her desk, and the journalist asks friendly questions like: “It’s not a legend, you sleep very little?” or “Now that’s your political heroism coming back”. If you think that would be deferential at best, you’re not alone: when it happened in France over the Christmas break, French viewers thought so too.

The interview, aired on 17 December 2017, showed the French president wandering (walking… “En Marche”… get it?) in the Elysée Palace, followed by TV journalist Laurent Delahousse. Questions included: “We have discovered a President Macron who runs. Have you run a lot in the past seven months?” and “You have created a new leadership, and at the same time forged the will for a new ecologist capitalism”.

It was a weird and unprecedented political interview, which commentators – including other journalists – called “French deferential journalism at its worst” and mocked for its “boot-licker” tone. “It was more to compliments than actual questions that Macron had to answer” was left-wing newspaper Liberation’s take on it; “Journalism on military attention,” was public radio France Culture’s take. An MP for La France Insoumise, far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon’s party, dubbed it “advertisement-reporting”; the far-right National Front called it a “shame”. Macron’s party, La Republique en Marche, seemed to like it, though: it used part of the interview in a promoted ad.

Although unique in terms of its audience (the interview was watched by 5 million people) and its medium (a state-owned channel), the France 2 show seemed to set a trend. After that, the “deferential” interviews continued. On 20 December, Macron answered a call live on TV in the Christmas special show and the full audience sang “Happy Birthday” to him. On 24 December, online media Konbini filmed Macron on selfie mode, answering questions such as “What was your biggest moment in 2017” (I don’t know, probably some time in early May?) or “What’s your resolution for 2018?” Once again, critics complained about the overly friendly attitude of the journalist (she was then revealed to be the site’s head of communications and to have worked in the past for François Hollande’s communications team). When Macron appeared on the cover of gossip magazine VSD, the feature’s focus was his “private” life and his dog, Nemo.

Since he rose to power last May, Macron’s media strategy has blurred the lines traditionally drawn between political journalism and business PR. These interviews, new in format and in (lack of) content, mark a stark contrast with his predecessors. Is this the new normal for the media under Macron?

Obsessing over the president is a very French thing, and journalists don’t escape it. “There is a French tradition of relative deference toward the head of state: the president isn’t seen as a normal politician”, Arnaud Mercier, a professor of political communication at Paris II Assas University, told the New Statesman. This is explained by the “very strong legitimacy” coming from the universal suffrage, he says, and makes journalists feel like they cannot criticise him too much.

Yet France 2’s interview, on a publicly owned channel, remains shocking: “It was very complaisant, because it allowed for something promotional, like the owner’s tour of the Elysée.” Thierry Vedel, an expert in political communication and researcher at Sciences Po, agrees: “The tone was conversational, not questioning.”

It was revealed that the filming of the France 2 interview was complicated by rescheduled hours and a lack of details provided by the Elysée, which, for Mercier, is also a serious matter: “That is not how you prepare for an interview [as a media]. It shows that they controlled nothing.” Such is the risk of accepting a format free from the usual TV codes. “Anything can happen”, says Vedel, who notes that, as they walked, it was Macron, not the journalist, who led the way. “The journalist was in a subaltern position,” he declares.

Mercier links the recent interviews to broader French history and especially to the times of the Office de Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française (ORTF), the state-owned media organisation which held a monopoly from 1964 to 1974. Already with the ORTF, “public TV channels were not there to bother the president”, he says. At the time, journalists were “almost civil servants”, agrees Vedel. With the end of the ORTF came “a time of emancipation”, and now, “competition puts journalists back in a status of reverence to get exclusives”.

From the beginning, Macron did not trust journalists. “He considers that François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy burnt their wings with the media,” Mercier says. Macron’s “original trauma” of seeing his old boss Hollande being crucified by the press led to his tendency to put distance between the media and himself. Macron himself recently tweeted: “Neither confidence nor connivance: the proximity we were used to weren’t good neither for political powers nor for the practice of journalism.”

So after his election, he avoided journalists, following the mantra of the “rarified speech”, a strategy first used by François Mitterrand (who was president from 1981 to 1995). He has since alternated between periods of silence and others when he multiplies media interventions. “There has been a withdrawal, and it created a strong tension with journalists”, explains Pierre-Emmanuel Guigo, the author of an essay on the media and politics, “PR and politics: Dangerous liaisons”. If an interview with the president becomes the holy grail, the journalist who grabs it will be cautious with questions – or they may never be granted another one again.

The presidency kicked off with a very business-like media strategy, but the recent interviews show a change in direction. “Macron’s PR is like Macron’s ideology: we don’t really know what it is yet,” Vedel says. “He goes from rarity and extreme simplicity to saturation”. Vedel takes the example of Macron’s presidential photo: very simple at the top, loaded with symbols at the bottom: “With Macron, it’s always dialectic”.

Macron is often compared to Tony Blair, but Blair had really developed a media strategy. “Blair had worked scientifically, [he] sociologically studied his audience," Vedel says. “He used PR like a political tool and was convinced that he could change people’s minds if his arguments were strong enough.” Macron, on the other hand, rose to power very quickly and without the need of such a strategy.

By refusing to talk and then giving deferential interviews, “he antagonised the media twice”, says Mercier. Now French journalists are left with whatever the mood of the day at the Elysée is.

At his New Year’s address to the press, Macron told journalists what they wanted to hear: he called for a UN envoy for the protection of journalists and, at home, for a law on “fake news”. He also hoped for a “sane distance” between media and politics and wished to “go back to basics, one of which is respect”. Another one, surely, is to treat the media as the counter power it is, and not as the subordinate receptacle of one’s “rarified” speech.

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