France – Emmanuel Macron’s triple language

French Presidents regularly have difficulty in ensuring a good fit between their political actions (‘doing’) and their political speech (‘saying’). De Gaulle cultivated a rarified political parole: but his interventions at the height of the May ’68 events were out of touch with the popular movement and the new generation of baby boomers that was contesting the established order. Georges Pompidou (1969-1974) was notoriously ill-at-ease with the New Society of his premier Jacques Chaban-Delmas (1969-72). Valery Giscard d’Estaing (1974-81) sought to reach out to the people at the early stages of his presidency (inviting himself to dinner amongst ‘ordinary’ people), before the presidential parole became rarer as the misfit between proximity and the presidential function and personality became more manifest. Francois Mitterrand deliberately cultivated a mysterious, ambiguous language, consecrated in the image of the Sphinx, the mysterious Egyptian god. Closer to home, Jacques Chirac (1995-2007) was left speechless during a televised campaign debate during the 2005 Europe referendum, as he was unable to comprehend the Euroscepticism expressed by young people. Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidential term (2007-2012) was deeply transgressive, not least at the level of his political language which descended to hitherto unfathomable depths (the famous ‘get lost, you loser’ [‘casse-toi pauvre con’] launched against an opponent at the Paris Agriculture show in 2008). François Hollande appeared to lack a consistent legitimising discourse to justify the main reforms of his presidential term, at least during the 2012-2014 period.

In practice, Macron appears still to be searching for a harmonious mix of language and practice. The young President is torn between two rival imperatives, each of which has discursive ramifications. First, to reinvest the presidential office with the dignity and abstraction that (in the view of Macron) proved beyond his three predecessors: Chirac, Sarkozy and Hollande. The dignified part of the constitution incites the President to appear above the fray, above party, exercising a rare presidential parole, invested with wisdom and guided by the heavy charge of leading the national destiny. The early acts of the Macron presidency were quasi-regal in their symbolism. This positioning corresponds to the early period of the Macron Presidency, the courting of the image of Jupiter that was discussed in the previous blog. The sudden drop in popularity over the summer 2017 highlighted the dangers of this stance.

The second presidential imperative is the political need to confront the people with the harsh realities of France’s situation, along with the increasingly explicit blaming of the previous administration for current difficulties . The linguistic component of this claimed transparency is one of telling the truth, ‘saying’ as a prelude and accompaniment to ‘doing’. In his first TV interview since being elected (October 15th), Macron repeated pointedly ‘I do what I say’, a stance that recalled the ‘telling the truth’ mantra of former premier Michel Rocard (1932-2016). Implicit in this stance is the promise of a clear legitimising discourse around change (why it is necessary and what it implies), as well as a pedagogical commitment to justify the need for change or at least to convince doubters of the well-founded and necessary nature of reforms. This pedagogical ambition is arguably appropriate and necessary, given the ambitious reforms enacted or announced during first six months of the Macron presidency (in the field of labour law, unemployment insurance, social security, pensions, training: all fields where the previous administration is deemed to have failed). A carefully stage-managed pedagogy, based on the capacity of reason, even philosophical justification, is required to convince, to persuade, to carry the day. The second dimension involves the President coming down from his discursive pedestal and leading from the helm: the dangers of a hyper-president are assumed, though the risk is evident that Macron will eventually become discredited by the unpopularity of the measures he proposes (as did his predecessor Sarkozy). One interesting dimension of this transparency agenda is that it has been linked to France’s neo-Protestant moment, with Macron reputedly emphasising the Protestant values of individual rigour, effort, wealth creation and responsibility (The reference to neo-protestantism is that of Regis Debray, however, not Macron himself. See Regis Debray, Le nouveau pouvoir Paris: Editions du Cerf, 2017).

In practice, presidential language has appeared too often to tread water, drifting somewhat uneasily between these two registers. The early months of Macron’s presidency demonstrate a clash of linguistic registers. On the one hand, Macron speaks a language that the people have rarely spoken, replete with references to classicism and metaphors of a by-gone age. The recent (October 15th) TV interview concluded with the use of expressions such as truchement (the literal translation of truchement is by, or through) and croquignolesque (which, in old familiar language, signifies risible, though its usage is very rare for someone of Macron’s generation). Henceforth, this antiquated register must compete with against a popular (not to say populist) political language, designed to counter the image that Macron is the President of the Rich. For the 2018 budget has witnessed a minor rebellion from within the ranks of the LRM deputies. The decision to suppress the wealth tax (l’impôt de solidarité sur la fortune) and replace it with a property tax (impôt sur la fortune immobilière) caused unease amongst former Socialist deputies in particular. Under pressure, the government agreed to amendments whereby totems of ostensible wealth, such as yachts, fast cars and gold, will still be subject to wealth taxes.

In a register close to that of former President Sarkozy, Macron has taken to speaking the language of the people, criticising the lazy (‘les faineants’) who don’t want to work; professing ‘I’m not Father Christmas’, when faced with demands for Guyanese demonstrators for the massive aid and development package promised by the previous government; lamenting the ‘unreformable character’ of the French, denigrating those ‘people who are nothing’ who took to demonstrating against his government’s reforms, and condemning the ‘lazy’ and the ‘illiterate’. On occasion, Macron’s language has appeared callous and humiliating: such as the ‘bordel’ incident when he claimed that French workers being made redundant ought to look for new work rather than complain or demonstrate.

It is unclear whether the descent into popular language is deliberate (a carefully scheduled exercise in political communication) or reflects frustrations with the obstacles placed on the reformist path. Is it a simple example of cognitive dissonance or a deliberate strategy? Does it reflect Macron’s own frustration with the failure of the society to conform to the presidential desire for control? Probably. Macron is still forging a presidential style. The early positioning as Roman god Jupiter led to accusations of arrogance and distance from the people. A language based on reason and abstraction now coexists alongside something much more concrete, some might say vulgar: a language based on emotion, which probably betrays the President’s own frustrations and anger with the state of French society. The President is aware of the force of words, so much so that he was forced to clarify his use of language in his October 15th interview (” I do not speak to humiliate people’). Opinion surveys do little to suggest that such a regain of trust has taken place, however, and the image of arrogance has taken root. Only time will tell whether lasting damage has been done.

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