Emmanuel Macron, Pragmatist?
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.