Mes vœux et les siens

Arthur Goldhammer
1 January 2019

If I thought my opinion carried any weight in the world, I would be more circumspect in expressing it. I would worry that my exasperation with Emmanuel Macron would push him toward failure, which is the last thing I want to see, because I fear its consequences. If I thought there were any chance that my criticism would be heard in high places and encourage a course correction, I would express it more forcefully. As it is, I know that only we happy few care what I think, so I will be neither more nor less circumspect but merely ambivalent, reflecting both the depth of my confusion and the height of my consternation.

Macron in recent months has rung a series of changes on his public image. He showed defiance when the Benalla story first broke but has since retreated into a puzzling silence that only fuels speculation on what he might be hiding. As his difficulties began to mount–after Hulot’s devastating departure and Collomb’s curious desertion–the president, it was rumored, had sunk into depression. He canceled a ministerial meeting and let it be known that he needed a rest. He gave a contrite speech, straining for sincerity by feigning to read from handwritten notes in a scene so oddly lit that he appeared to be seated behind a desk shrouded in penumbral gloom.

In the depths of the Gilets Jaunes affair he appeared again, awarding gifts with both hands to replace what he had only recently taken away in the name of necessity. But yesterday, on New Year’s Eve, he was back again, on his feet, brightly lit, with some semblance of the vigor and certitude he had displayed during the campaign. Necessary reforms (to pensions and unemployment insurance, for example) remained necessary, he insisted, and would proceed as planned, despite the recent promise to engage in earnest consultation with le bon Peuple through their cahiers de doléances and their “natural” representatives, the mayors. The clear implication was that these consultations would in fact be what we mauvaises langues assumed all along, namely, window-dressing. But he went further, retracting his lip service to le bon Peuple with a devastating but accurate description of the actually existing people, whom he accused of a “flagrant denial of reality”: “On ne peut pas travailler moins, gagner plus, baisser nos impôts et accroître nos dépenses, ne rien changer à nos habitudes et respirer un air plus pur.” 

This is a nicely turned phrase, which accurately captures the dilemma of the centrist reformer, determined to make changes he sees as being in the general interest but aware that while the people may want the ends, they will resist the means with all their might. But rather than demonstrating that he has learned from his recent humiliation that he must finesse the all-too-human flaws of the people he seeks to serve, that he must mobilize all the ruses of the reason he claims to possess, he has reverted to the hectoring self-confidence that characterized his rise. Knowing he is right, he insists that everyone must acknowledge that there is no alternative, that he has left no options unexplored. His hand gestures were Gaullian: slicing the air with both arms moving in simultaneous downbeats, as if conducting two orchestras at once, government and people; enunciating his topic headings in triplets, as taught at Sciences Po, and moving his arms left-to-right or right-to-lift to visually punctuate each bullet point, left, center, and right. It was as if he had been told that his contrition hadn’t played well and he must reclaim his Authority. Or perhaps he had been told, instead, that his contrition, coupled with his munificent 10 billion euro handouts, had done the trick, support for the rebellion was subsiding, and he could resume his previously charted course, the storm having been successfully circumnavigated.

Will it work? I am out of the prediction game, having failed so dismally at it. I will confine myself to observation. In any case, as I said at the beginning, what I think doesn’t matter. What matters is what Macron does, and I fear that, now that it is clear he can be cowed, he will be tested again and again in the months to come.

 

Photo Credit: Sylke Bach via Flickr, “Affiche electoral 2016-2017″ , CC BY-NC 2.0

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1 Comment

  • An excellent and very welcome assessment of where we (rather, he and France) stand.

    I cannot help wondering whether, though we were aware of most of his limitations — perhaps most important, his imperious persona — our all too high expectations aren’t to blame for our disappointment with his performance. Asserting the maximum and backing off when it meets resistance seems to be shared with some of his contemporaries or near contemporaries (e.g., Obama, Trump), though obviously the styles and much else are drastically different. Obama compromised on health care before the program was made public; Trump’s wall will not only not be paid for by Mexico but would not necessarily be a wall — or much of anything — at all. Macron tried a techn(ocratic)ally good approach to France’s economic problems, only to find that it elicited a strong reaction, to put it mildly. The reaction was in part to the perception of what his proposals amounted to and in part to his persona and style. But technical fixes that might have been tolerated by much or most of the public 35 years ago are likely to elitic a hostile response today, almost independent of theircontent, because of who is presenting them and how.

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