Mediapoliticking Comes to France

Arthur Goldhammer
3 June 2020

A movie star and a reality-TV buffoon have won the presidency of the United States in recent years. Is it conceivable that the mantle of Charles de Gaulle will devolve upon a 9/11-denying film clown like Jean-Marie Bigard, a televisual vulgarian like Cyril Hanouna, or a provocateur of the infotainment circuit such as Éric Zemmour? The French media are full of speculation that one of these men might challenge Macron in 2022. Macron is reportedly worried enough about this possibility that he placed a telephone call to Bigard, facilitated by yet another entertainer-cum-politician, Patrick Sébastien.

Or–another interpretation–Macron may actually be trying to instigate a candidacy by one of these media populists, whose natural constituencies overlap with that of Marine Le Pen, as well as with the Yellow Vests movement, which remains a thorn in Macron’s side. According to this second theory, a run by Bigard or Hanouna or Zemmour would take votes away from Le Pen, leaving Macron to face (most likely) an LR opponent in the second round. (This would be playing with fire, of course, but audacity is–or at least was–Macron’s trademark, particularly while running for office, as opposed to occupying it.)

This politique-politicienne gossip is diverting enough, but a larger question remains. What accounts for the success of these political entertainers? (One could add President Zelensky of Ukraine, another TV comedian, to the list, among others, including Beppe Grillo in Italy.) One staple of their rhetoric is that the “official” media cannot be trusted. On ne nous dit pas tout is a constant refrain: witness Bigard’s 9/11 denialism or Trump’s obsession with Obama’s birthplace. Anti-elitism is another familiar theme, and the faux-frank, plain-spoken, man-of-the-people affect of a Bigard or Hanouna is worn as a badge of rough-hewn honor: their grammar and accent vouch for them as living antitheses of the detested énarque class.

Yet they chat regularly with a president who, when he isn’t posing with bare-chested rappers or dancing with Beyoncé, likes to deliver speeches with open volumes of Stendhal on his desk and who in his youth dispatched giddy fan letters to Paul Ricoeur. Even in France, however, lofty literary interests no longer command the respect they once did. The Yellow Vests uprising revealed the depth of the communications chasm separating Macron from the masses. His magical mystery tour of local consultations in which he did most of the talking established a tenuous bridgehead on the alien soil of la France profonde, but in the television age, hearts and minds are rarely won directly and must be wooed par écran interposé.

For this Macron needs help. He may be enlisting the likes of Bigard and Sébastien as unwitting acting coaches. We know he takes direction well. Perhaps we will soon see a different Macron on the campaign trail, one who can do a softshoe routine like Sébastien’s to beguile the elderly, mimic a carnival roustabout à la Bigard, and indulge in inflammatory provocations like Zemmour.  After all, he has admitted that his presidency needs to reinvent itself. This time around it could be tailored to D8 TV rather than TF1.

 

Photo Credit: Montreux Comedy Festival, Jean-Marie Bigard, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

 

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1 Comment

  • Anoymous says:

    My own sense is that Macron’s sense of theatre (remember he was a talented young actor), means he knows that keeping his audience engaged is important to re-election. I would not conclude from his supposed overtures to popular celebrities that he has lost his intellectual and political acuity. Of course, those who have disliked him from the first may make whatever they like of his latest gambit.

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