Emmanuel Macron, Pragmatist?

19 January 2018

Thomas Legrand, one of my favorite commentators on French politics, to whose France Inter editorial I wake up every morning, ruminated today on the “meaning of Macronism” and concluded, in part on the basis of the Notre-Dame-des-Landes decision, that Macron is a pure “pragmatist.” His reasoning was that Macron took his decision in all likelihood as the most practical way to exit from a situation of crisis. He did not try to link it to his long-term ecological goals, He did not try to paint a picture of changing sensibilities over 50 years or of evolving attitudes toward economic growth and what is needed to foster it. Nor, for obvious reasons, since the logic would have worked against his decision, did he raise the issue of state authority and government credibility.

Interestingly, the word “pragmatism” was also uttered frequently by Luc Ferry last Saturday as a guest on Alain Finkielkraut’s Répliques broadcast. Ferry, a philosopher and former education minister, used the word in a less neutral, less descriptive sense than Legrand, but at bottom the idea was the same. Macron is a president who flies by the seat of his pants, values action above ideology, and has no particular vision of the society his actions will shape.

For Ferry, this absence of a vision or project is a gaping hole at the heart of Macronism. In his eyes it makes Macron a mere “economic liberal,” what others might call a “neoliberal” (see Jake Hamburger’s interview with Wendy Brown elsewhere on this site for Brown’s view of “neoliberal rationality”), rather than a republican liberal, which is how Ferry sees himself, invoking the image of General de Gaulle to gesture at what he means by that. I would characterize Ferry’s republican liberalism somewhat differently, as what I have elsewhere called “Leopardian liberalism,” after Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s Leopard, who recognized that “everything must change so that everything can remain the same.”

For both Legrand and Ferry, there is something suspect and not quite satisfactory about a political pragmatist like Macron. For Ferry, pragmatism means surrender to economic forces rather than channeling them in a socially conservative direction. For Legrand, it is a form of expediency, which, even when it arrives at a correct decision (as I think Legrand takes the NDDL decision to be), fails to use it as a lesson about principles if driving home that lesson threatens to be divisive. Pragmatism is thus a form of la politique politicienne rather than a profile in courage.

I think, actually, that Macron is more subtle than either commentator gives him credit for. If he has a project or vision, and I think he does, he knows (as de Gaulle did) that it is best kept close to his chest. Principles are as much a matter for pragmatic selection as tactics are. One makes a spectacle of the big ideas when it is convenient and discards them when it isn’t. The pragmatic politician is not really at home in the basse cour of politics, but he knows that passing through the basse cour is often the quickest way to the garden. It’s best not to be seen taking this shortcut, however, so you have your prime minister do it. Édouard Philippe was the point man on the NDDL decision. Even Nicolas Hulot paid him homage. The merits are his, and also the demerits.

Macron doesn’t need them, in any case. He knows that the battle over this wretched airport was but a skirmish, and it was a skirmish he had no desire to become bogged down in. He has established his authority by other means and had no need of turning this molehill into a mountain. Rather than power his way into a well-laid ambush, he simply avoided it. This is not pragmatism. It’s tactical judgment. For all Ferry’s invocation of the ghost of de Gaulle, one might conclude that it’s Macron who has studied the General’s methods more closely than the former minister of education.


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  • Robinson says:

    Was ever a pragmatist more pragmatic – using the word in Ferry’s sense as a synonym for “unprincipled” or even “sneaky” – than De Gaulle when it came to Algeria? He came to power in a half-coup, defeated the FLN militarily and then gave his vanquished Algerian foes everything they wanted.

    What Macron wants is clear enough: a liberalized French economy at the heart of a functioning Eurozone. He is not a free-market fanatic. Macron sees his liberalizing agenda as a way to achieve an historic compromise with Germany (one that will require the Germans to make an equally bold move in the direction of what they see as unsound, statist economics.) This is a properly political goal that has its own sort of grandeur.

    If Macron pulls this off he will seem like a visionary, all his medium-sized concessions like clever tactical feints. Like the General, he will also have to be very lucky.

  • Michael Nicolson says:

    Excellent analysis and, as usual, elegantly expressed. I especially liked this comparison.

    “The pragmatic politician is not really at home in the basse cour of politics, but he knows that passing through the basse cour is often the quickest way to the garden. It’s best not to be seen taking this shortcut, however, so you have your prime minister do it. ”

    I think that if Macron is to succeed in a country where ideology and grandiloquence are overestimated, he will have to be at least a fox—sneaky but not really dangerous.

  • Bernard says:

    The whiz kids of Tocqueville 21 IT have some issues with enumerating comments. they might want to take calculus 101 again…

    On NDLL, one might want to remember that this was originally conceived as the third Paris airport, then was recycled as a desperately needed international airport for the “Grand Ouest” (conveniently located at the absolute Southern end of the “Grand Ouest”…) once the bureaucrats realized (through the construction of Disneyland Paris) that the price of agricultural land around the original CDG airport was so ridiculously low (about 35 Euros par acre…, unlike at Heathrow) that there really was never going to be a need for a new site: just enlarge CDG if and when needed. All that happened then in my view is that Macron finally told the bureaucrats to get lost in favor of realism, not pragmatism. As for ideology, I would suggest to ecologists who get high on Quinoa to calculate the Carbon Dioxide emissions flying their favorite food from Peru just as I would suggest a full emissions accounting for manufacturing electric cars batteries.

    I am not sure Robinson is entirely correct to go back to De Gaulle’s decision on Algeria and call it pragmatic or sneaky. I suspect De Gaulle’s decision was rooted from day One in a deep ideological understanding of the path of history (he gave independence not just to Algeria, but to all the colonies including many countries in Africa), and all the rest was political and military maneuvering to get the general population (if not the “colons”) where he needed them to be to accept the end of the colonial empire.

    Of course, the USA would then need another 11 years (even though De Gaulle took the trouble in 1966 to go and explain it to them in Phnom Penh) to get to the same place in Vietnam and understand that formerly colonized people did not take kindly to foreign intervention, even when buttressed by criminal carpet bombing. If that is pragmatism, then I am pretty glad that Macron is a pragmatist.

  • Geof says:

    Reminds me of the story about Senator Everett Dirksen, the Republican Minority Leader in the 60’s. Once, after he had balked at accepting a compromise proposal, he intoned “I am a man of Principle.” Later of course, the deal was sweetened and he easily flipped his position. When queried over his about-face, he replied “I AM a man of Principle and my most important principle is Flexibility.” Perhaps Macron is a Man of Principle and that principle is Pragmatism.

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