The Intelligence of the President
President Macron is a well-respected man. Even his detractors credit him with being a remarkably thoughtful and intelligent man. Why, then, has he allowed himself to be portrayed as thoughtless and stupid? I am referring, of course, to the now infamous “pognon de dingue” video filmed by his communications director, Sibeth N’Diaye and released on Twitter.
If you haven’t watched this video, please click on the link above. There has been a great deal of commentary on the president’s uncharacteristic use of the language of the Café du Commerce: “pognon de dingue.” His manner is hectoring, unanalytical, overhyped. If the comparison weren’t so grotesque, one might almost say that this video is an énarque‘s impression of Donald Trump, which makes its release on Twitter all the more fitting.
But Emmanuel Macron is an intelligent man, which means that, unlike Donald Trump, he surely knows what a false picture he is painting of “the French social model,” which on the very same day this video was made he praised as “bringing honor” to France. If this is the way he speaks in private to his staff, one can only be alarmed, for surely he knows that the reason why that model brings honor to France is that it is more effective in reducing poverty than the German welfare system. The pre-transfer poverty rate is about 25% in both countries, according to economist Olivier Bargain (a good name for an economist!), but the post-transfer rate is 16% in Germany but only 14.2% in France.
Apparently, the problem that Macron sees is a problem not of efficacy, then, but rather of efficiency. France, he thinks, is spending more than it has to (un pognon de dingue) to achieve results that it could achieve by spending less. That may be, but cutting benefits, which is what he seems to be proposing, will reduce efficacy, and efficiency, if the word has any meaning at all in the evaluation of a welfare state, has to involve some ratio of efficacy to cost, so it is by no means clear that the proposed spending cuts will make the system more efficient, as opposed to simply cheaper.
Macron disguises this gap in his logic by speaking of the alleged failure of the existing social model to increase social mobility: the poor remain poor, he says, despite the pognon de dingue. What is really needed is education and jobs. Well, no doubt education and jobs are fine things, but the condition of the poor in the present remains desperate, and the promise of education and jobs is like the promise of heaven: tomorrow’s bliss will no doubt be a fine thing when it arrives, but first one has to get through today. Increasing social mobility is the holy grail, but there is absolutely no evidence that the elimination of the wealth tax, to take an example of the kind of policy that Macron is selling as a substitute for the pognon de dingue, is going to achieve that.
So why does Macron sound so shrill in this video, in which he knows he’s prevaricating, and why was the Elysée so keen to get it out that it alerted reporters to its presence on Twitter? In short, why was Macron so intent on playing Trump, selling his policy to the credulous and uninformed by imitating their speech mannerisms? As I said, he is a bright man, and he is also a shrewd political analyst. He has concluded that what he must do at all cost is to prevent an alliance between Les Républicains and the far right, be it le Rassemblement National of Marine Le Pen or the still nebulous alternative that her niece Marion Maréchal (no longer Le Pen) is putting together with Dupont d’Aignan and others. The name changes are significant. Marine is trying to efface all memory of her father by changing the name of her party. Marion is doing the same by dropping Le Pen from her name. Macron sees the threat and is trying to parry it by Twitter, just as Wauquiez tried to shore up his hard-right credentials by “inadvertently” speaking off the record to students in a manner he could be sure would leak.
Both Macron and Wauquiez are thus trying to “maintain deniability,” as one says in intelligence circles, by resorting to informal channels of communication in which they speak like beaufs while preserving a more dignified image for other occasions (actually, in Wauquiez’s case, he seems prepared to shed every last semblance of dignity, but that’s another matter, and he’s not president).
Macron has to know that he’s alienating the support of many who voted to make him president. He’s smart enough that this can only connote a willingness to run a calculated risk. He has always been a high-stakes gambler. But I’m increasingly worried that this is a bet he’s going to lose. He has too much confidence in own abilities, and, frankly, this Twitter excursion was not well-played, nor was his dérapage regarding the Aquarius. On the latter issue he and Conte have patched things up for the moment, but the substance of their agreement remains unclear. On social assistance, Macron has not left himself much room for maneuver, and I think he’s headed straight for the wall.