Form vs. Function

16 April 2018

For the second time in three days, President Macron, le pourfendeur de la présidence bavarde of his predecessor, sat down for a lengthy interview. Regarding the content of his discussion with journalists Jean-Jacques Bourdin and Edwy Plenel, I can repeat what I said in the previous post: Macron is brilliant at articulating his own point of view, which he defends by saying nothing about the strongest arguments that can be raised against him. Once again his defense of the wealth tax cut provides a glaring example: he claims that it will boost investment in France while ignoring the fact that it equally favors capital flows out of France and into other countries. Despite their (shall we say) pugnacity of the two interviewers, they were as ineffective as the hapless Jean-Pierre Pernaut in exposing the weaknesses in the president’s arguments.

Which brings us to the question of the form vs. the function of events like this. In form last night’s event was certainly an innovation. The president–I assume it was the president or his press flacks–couldn’t have chosen a more … virile mise en scène, what with Macron backed by the magnificent phallic symbol of the Eiffel Tower, punctuated by twinkling lights of the sort that used to symbolize orgasmic moments in film before one could show les feux de joie directly. The view through the window of the Palais de Chaillot couldn’t have been more spectacular.

Across the pentagonal table sat the two journalists, Edwy Plenel for la gauche militante, Jean-Jacques Bourdin for la droite beauf. Neither wore a tie, whether by their choice or the president’s was not stated. Given the kerfuffle over Mélenchon’s tieless appearances at the Assemblée Nationale, the choice could only be read as an effort to faire peuple, an effort reinforced by the decision to address Monsieur le Président, as he was called in the introduction only, as “Emmanuel Macron.” One was immediately reminded of Jacques Chirac’s effort to enforce equality between himself and the incumbent Mitterrand during the 1988 presidential debate: “Oui, Monsieur le Premier Ministre,” Monsieur le Président affably agreed. But, as Macron reminded his interlocutors at one point, “je suis le président, vous êtes des intervieweurs.” Moi, je décide, vous griffonnez.

Sarkozy used to complain that his interviewers lacked du répondant, which threw him off his counterpuncher’s game. Macron could lodge no such complaint against the pair he confronted. At moments Bourdin seemed ready to leap from his chair and attack the president physically. In his daily routine he likes to sit directly across from his interviewee, nose to nose as it were, so that he can hurl questions in his or her face. The pentagonal setup for the TV cameras left him defanged. He tried to overcome the distance by looking fierce. Plenel tried to do the same by looking ironic and wry, forcing his patented ironic twinkle to compensate for lack of depth. Both men presented themselves as tribuns du peuple rather than connoisseurs of any particular issue area, which allowed Macron to toy with them in a sort of rope-a-dope performance, confronting only those arguments he chose to.

But the gloves are off now. Future interviewers will feel emboldened to go after the president as never before. Macron seems to enjoy the exercise, but who knows? Even Muhammad Ali slowed with age. In the meantime, the spectacle diverts from the substance. Form triumphs over function. And Macron buys time, which is what every president needs. Il faut donner du temps au temps, as Mitterrand famously said. Last night, Macron bought himself some time.


Photo Credit: Thesupermat, Salon du livre de Paris 2011 – Edwy Plenel, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.


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  • Tim Smyth says:

    I don’t want to sound repetitive but again Macron had no choice on the wealth tax cut but to remain within EU rules.

    As I have mentioned in the past I do some lobbying work in France and Brussels(in addition to DC). Just today an article came out in the English press about the main group I work with. As I mentioned before Thomas Piketty and Gabriel Zucman have a strained relationship to say the least with this group and myself and hopefully this article below might give people a better explanation why that is.

    I have done a fair bit of work with the people mentioned in the article dealing with EU law and treaty issues so that is where I get my personal knowledge of EU rules regarding taxation.

  • brent says:

    Macron is a powerful debater–no surprise–and he shut down his interlocutors, particularly Plenel, with a masterful command of his own dossiers, as you note. He does, however, have the tendency to show utter disdain for anyone who tries to pose a counter-argument, particularly from the left, as Plenel noted when he said “you aren’t the prof and we aren’t your students.” If there is no Left to worry about, then Plenel’s (spot-on) criticism won’t matter. But if a substantial and legitimate Left opposition comes together, Macon’s insulting hauteur may prove a fatal flaw.

  • Frédéric says:

    I have a little, zero-cent bet, with a good friend and politician, about the weakest point in Emmanuel Macron’s structure.

    My friend thinks it’s about his links with “les affaires”, private banking, the business milieu as a whole, so that he would not be free of running the changes he would really consider needed; so that his “volontarisme” would, month after month, be oriented into void and useless “réformes” that you undertake just for the sake of undertaking.

    I think it is more about the lack of empathy. The most clever and the soundest of arguments cannot convince somebody who suspects you are not on his, or her, side. (Oh, “Whose side are you on?”, that’s a song of my good old time, Matt Bianco — “Who’s that someone on the inside, an undercover mole? Too late to use a lie detector, now some heads will roll.”). People might protest against Macron just because he doesn’t seem to take them in arms.

    I guess the same thing happened to De Gaulle at the time of “Charlot, des sous!” (1963).

    For sure, nobody is perfect, and empathy without cleverness would make a poor head of State (not to mention the lack of both abilities, which is a pity at high levels of responsibility). But there is nobody in the present staff to bring the warm and wholehearted vibe – neither the humorous Edouard Philippe, nor the so serious François de Rugy, nor the so classic debaters Castaner and Griveaux, nor any of the Ministres (but the junior minister Jacqueline Gourault) as far as I know.

    Seen from Argenteuil or from mountains, Emmanuel Macron lost connection with the people. It does not imply that any of the components of the opposition catched this connection. Even FN lost it.

  • Daniel S says:

    I have only gotten through half the 2.5 hour interview, but so far it does seem like this interview heightened Macron’s public stature. I found that the interviewers seemingly dispatched with the standard “oppositional interview” style (best showcased in my opinion by Lea Salame), where journalists take the opposing viewpoint on every issue, but from a neutral stance. Plenel and Bourdin were clearly biased in their questioning, which left open the road for Macron to argue that HE was the objective one – not the journalists – frequently correcting their version of the facts, their foundations for pointed questions (e.g. Plenel trying to argue that he was doing something undemocratic by attacking Syria without parliamentary consent). They also spent a good amount of time trying to prove that he didn’t “care” about the suffering of the different populations touched by his reforms, which was easy for him to rebuke, by saying that he in fact was, but that the reforms were benevolent and the suffering was either patriotic or overblown by media.

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