By Olivia Hanks
Emmanuel Macron: enlightened, compassionate saviour of Europe, or sneering autocrat in the pocket of big business? France’s new president raised eyebrows across the political spectrum last week when he appeared to divide society into two: “successful people, and people who are nothing”. Macron was addressing entrepreneurs at the launch of Station F, a huge start-up hub based in a former railway station in Paris. Urging his audience to take nothing for granted, he observed that working in a station building would serve as a reminder, because “a station is a place where you mix with successful people, and people who are nothing.”
Twitter had a few things to say about this choice of words, with #lesgensquinesontrien (people who are nothing) rapidly trending. Macron’s political opponents quickly waded in, too, with figures from the Left, the Republican parties and the far-right Front National all condemning the speech as “shameful”.
He sneered at members of the public protesting about his labour reforms: “I won’t take lessons from you […] The best way to afford a suit is to work.”
So, does it matter? Does Macron really think that some people are “nothing”? His speech also referred at length to the need to work hard to benefit the whole of society, not just oneself, and the importance of “keeping in mind, every single moment, the fact that success imposes an obligation”. Unfortunately, the golden boy of European centrism has form when it comes to disdain for the poor. Last year, while a minister in François Hollande’s government, he sneered at members of the public protesting about his labour reforms: “I won’t take lessons from you […] The best way to afford a suit is to work.”
Macron’s public persona – slick, considerate, right-on – has proved stunningly effective, winning not only the presidency but a majority in the National Assembly for La République En Marche (LREM). This incredible feat, by a party formed barely a year earlier, was made possible by a huge grassroots campaign of a kind unusual in France, with a vast army of volunteers working to persuade the electorate that LREM could make not only a splash, but a tsunami in the stagnant pool of French politics.
A former government minister financed by investment banker contacts from his time at Rothschild (lots of them, since the French system only permits individuals to donate up to 7,500 euros a year), Macron nevertheless managed to present himself as the anti-establishment outsider, who would clean up politics and clear out the old guard. Sound familiar? It’s astonishing that his victory has been hailed in some quarters as the defeat of populism, given the nature of his campaign: heavy on rhetoric, light on policy, and conducted on the strength of his personal magnetism and charm.
It’s astonishing that his victory has been hailed in some quarters as the defeat of populism, given the nature of his campaign: heavy on rhetoric, light on policy, and conducted on the strength of his personal magnetism and charm.
The charmer is still in evidence on social media and in the stream of images pumped out by the presidential comms team: Macron playing tennis, chatting with children, shaking hands with various heads of state. He has otherwise largely vanished, however, from relations with the press, releasing minimal information on policy and refusing to grant the traditional 14th July interview with leading TV reporters. Outrageously, the reason given to Le Monde by an aide was that the president’s thought processes were too “complex” for journalists’ questions. Equally worrying is the other justification offered: that there was no need for an interview, because everyone would be able to hear the president speak when he addressed both houses of parliament at Versailles. No doubt taking his cue from Donald Trump, who has shown that a president of a major democracy can shut out the media with impunity, Macron has given just one interview to the press since he was elected, and has demanded to choose which journalists accompany him when he travels.
It is highly unusual for a president to address both houses, and the Versailles speech last Monday only gave further ammunition to those who accuse Macron of behaving like a monarch. He is already accumulating nicknames such as ‘Napoleon’ and ‘Jupiter’; indeed, in an interview in 2015 he declared his belief that the absence of “the figure of the king” had created a void in French society that democracy had failed to fill.
These are worrying words from a man who now holds almost unlimited legislative power. One of the key announcements in his Versailles speech was the end of the state of emergency which has been in place since the Bataclan massacre in November 2015 – and the incorporation of most of its provisions into the permanent statute books.
There is widespread concern that the proposed ‘antiterrorism law’ will normalise the constraints on civil liberties brought in in the name of ‘emergency’. The provisions of the state of emergency have to a large extent been used to target environmental activists, notably at the COP21 climate talks shortly after the Bataclan attack. Macron, who declares “freedom” to be his overriding motivation in life, has begun his presidency by limiting the freedom of others.
Macron, who declares “freedom” to be his overriding motivation in life, has begun his presidency by limiting the freedom of others.
Macron-mania persists, however. In Brussels, in the United States – where his invitation to American climate scientists drew a surge of gratitude from US citizens embarrassed by Trump’s announcement that he would withdraw from the Paris agreement – and at home in France, where the president’s approval rating hovers around 64 per cent. But a backlash is surely coming. Many in France might be seduced by the monarchical pomp and aloofness – but the workers’ movement is also strong, far stronger than in the UK. Macron’s proposed labour reforms show his belief that capitalism isn’t unfettered enough, that freedom means a free hand for business and capital, and that, in short, we need more neoliberalism, not less. He thinks giving individuals a hand up into the system can solve society’s problems – the ultimate start-up culture – but he has no issue with the actual economic system which has served him so well.
However, across the western world, there is a growing understanding that the poor are not neoliberalism’s failures – they are its victims. They are not “nothing”. And when they cry that they have no bread, it is unlikely that the response “Let them start up their own bakery!” will satisfy the public for long.
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