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Macron, Un Président Philosophe. Brice Couturier. The Anti-Populist Progressive? Review.

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Macron, Un Président Philosophe. Aucun des ses mots n’est le fruit de hasard. Brice Couturier. Editions l’Observatoire. 

An interview which broke with the deferential traditions of the 5th Republic made the French headlines all week. On Sunday the 15th of April the journalists Jean-Jacques Bourdin and Edwy Plenel questioned the head of state for two hours on the balance-sheet of his administration. Elected with a sweeping majority for the party La République en marche, he defended a policy of immediate reforms, from the rail service, to higher education. Macron “listened” to the anger of opponents – the railway workers, students, aeroplane pilots, functionaries, and the squatters occupying the ZAD at Notre-Dame-des-Landes. But republican norms had to be respected. Universities were victims of “professionnels du désordre” (le Monde 17.4.18).

As the exchange got underway Plenal, the anti-Macron founder of the independent Mediapart, and a former member of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, interrupted. “You are not our Teacher, and we are not your pupils”. An Editorial in Le Monde the previous day talked of Macron as a pedagogue ready to lecture, regardless of the wishes of his audience, until he had completed his lesson. (Macron au cours préparatoire. 14.4.18) Excluding the possibility that the President was unaware of his interlocutor’s troublemaking potential one assumes that a snappy put down far from a chance part of the course.

The Anti-Populist Progressive? 

But what syllabus is France’s President instructing us from? This is far from an issue limited to the Hexagone. There are policies on the European Union. Macron’s “camp progressiste” has stimulated interest amongst homeless supporters of the Third Way, Die Neue Mitte, and the liberal centre. For many of these people Macron represents a successful ‘anti-populist’ unifying force.  Much of the French left, which saw many transfers from the right of the Parti Socialiste (PS) and allied figures, to the new President’s camp, by contrast, announced immediately after his victory that this was a Presidency for the wealthy, for the ‘elite’. For former Socialist Minister Anicet Le Pors, he is “mandated” by international finance, the ruling circles of the EU, the bosses, the administrative technocracy, show business, and nearly all the media. (April 2018. Le Monde Diplomatique)

With the present unrest attracting attention the English-speaking left has been quick to label Macron a neo-liberal, a spin of Tony Blair and Thatcher, out to attack the labour movement and impose markets on the public sphere. The ‘bromance’ with Donald Trump over Syria adds force to the comparison with the former British Prime Minister.

Perry Anderson, in a peremptory post-election account, went deeper. Adorned in best periodic style, he suggested that the “neoliberal reformation of France”, attempted for over three decades, had been impeded on different sides by the constituencies of right and left. Macron, in effect, cut through the various knots tiring up the centre left and right, and formed a real “bloc bourgeois” ready to carry out a liberalisation of the economy, and free up entrepreneurial energy. (1)

But some clarity is needed about the beast in power. There are already plenty of books about the President, and the electoral campaign that swept him to the Élysée. But what is his ideology, beyond carrying out his neoliberal “mandate”? ‘Macronism’ appears a less promising candidate than Thatcherism or even the rebarbative Blairism. A suggestion by Régis Debray that – the reader will have guessed this – that the Head of State represents Americanisation, with a ‘Protestant’ twist (see below), this does not take us far. It might be better said that his ideology is something picked up and stuck together as the result of an academic, administrative, business and political career.

In Macron, un président philosophe, Courtier who has a solid academic, and media background, and a less firm commitment to a form of left wing liberalism, offers us a series of insights into this broad picture. As he indicates, the former assistant to the philosopher Paul Ricœur, graduate of French elite Political and Administrative colleges, Finance Inspector, Rothschild Banker, and Minister under François Hollande, offers rich intellectual pickings. Blair, the erudite few may recall, had the lecturer Peter Thompson at Oxford, and the lessons of reciprocity from John Macmurray, behind his Christian socialism. Macron has somebody, Ricœur, a thinker with a Protestant backdrop, whom people have often heard of, if not read.

The President, we learn, has many many more figures in his hinterland. French books have a vexing lack of indexes. It would be hard work to list every sage cited in un Président philosophe, they range from Hegel, Marx, Carl Schmitt, Nietzsche, Peter Sloterdijk, Joseph Schumpeter, Michael Young (meritocracy), to Jürgen Habermas. This only follows the reference-laden writings and speeches of the book’s subject.

From Ricoeur to Saint Simon. 

It would be useful to boil this down to the essential. To begin with here is the debt to Paul Ricœur. For Courtier he offered the germs of an “identitié narrative” from the individual to the nation, to history. The use for a President of certain ideas about France, recently indicated in recognition to the importance of the legacy of Catholicism, is obvious. Macron has, in other words, considers cultural legacies, the presence of memory, to hold the country together – a view whose originality or interest is not immediately apparent.

Next Macron can be compared to Saint-Simon, the prophet of a society run by “industrials” and “intellectuals”. In this vein he is said to consider globalisation as a system of fluxes to be organised and regulated (Page 253). Finance, the mark of neo-liberalism, is to be channelled to the long-term greater good.

If Macron is a believer in capitalism he acknowledges it is not a system that works smoothly, if with great effort, like some building a planetary network of Saint-Simonian canals. There are moments of creative destruction (Schumpeter), clearing out the old inefficient enterprises, bureaucratic burdens and the “corporatism” of organised labour. ‘Progressive’ states, and the transnational European project, are needed to both facilitate and harness this process. .

Finally, there is building European Sovereignty, and the problems that globalisation creates. Courtier refers to David Goodhart in outlining the problems France faces. (3). Can Macron bring together the France of the “zones péripheriques”, the old working class far from the elite, and the metropolitan “gagnants de la mondialisation” (winners of globalisation), regarded as Macron’s core backing, if not electorate, together? (Pages 291 -2)

The difficulty of reconciling the “somewhere’ salt-of-the-earth folk and the – scorned – “nowhere” cosmopolitans would appear hard for somebody identified with the (however misleadingly) with the latter “bobos”. The task of bringing integration against the ‘identitarians’ of the far-right and those who assert the absolute right to multicultural difference, by the “modèle republican français” appears equally arduous. The often reverential, if not hagiographical tone of Un président philosophe, does not help resolve the difficulties. The use of Goodhart to bolster his opinions indicates a rightward slant with no countervailing force. 

The philosophical commentator Alain famously declared that when somebody says that they are neither right nor left, he is sure of one thing – that they are not of the left. Macron is always careful to declare that he is of the right and the left. But there is a little indication of the latter. Pierre-André Taguieff has represented him as the herald of “successful globalisation”, a Europe in which France would be a “nation-start up” and the “État-enterprise”. To decipher the business-talk Anglicisms that pepper Macron’s speech is to confirm this view.

Managerialism, Saint-Simon, Schumpeter, both far from any conception of “bottom up” democracy, political or economic, and a homeopathic communitarian philosophy suggested by Courtier’s reading of Goodhart, do not make an attractive picture of France’s President. If this is what “progressivism” has become in Europe, than it is doubtful if it will attract many enthusiasts beyond France, and certainly not from left-wingers (3)

The European Project and the left.

In the article cited above Anderson pins the ultimate root of this strategy on the European Project. In the trickle down from his approach, others seize on every obstacle to the EU – Brexit included – as an advance against neo-liberalism. Today’s French strikes and protests – regardless of their specific causes or aims – are considered part of this movement.

But the real issue for the French left, in the aftermath of their defeat, may be said to have been whether Macron could be opposed by the “left populist” strategy of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France insoumise (LFI), to ‘federate the people” against the “elite” or by a new “left bloc” based on alliances between the parties (now stretching from the remains of the PS, Benoît Hamon’s group, the PCF, LFI and its allies, what is left of Les Verts, Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste, NPA) with the social forces presently fighting the wave of Macron reforms. This, as Stefano Palombarini suggested last June, would require an internationalist strategy towards changing the EU that breaks from the populist drift to ‘sovereigntism’. (4)

It is said that with his steam-roller reforms Macron has now been abandoned by whatever support he had from the ‘reformist’ liberal left. That after a year’s presidency he has veered towards authoritarianism  to “jacobinisme vertical”. Whether this is true or not the left is not united. There is no indication that the largest group in the French National Assembly, LFI, at the moment engaged in a “war of movement” to capture hegemony over the left, intends to explore this possibility. It might still be said, that to wrestle the European issue out of the hands of the Macrons and the existing EU system of governance, while fighting the sovereigntists, remains the key issue for our continent’s left, in all its diversity, strengths and weaknesses.

****

(1) The Centre Can Hold. Perry Anderson. New Left Review. No 105. May/June 2017. See: L’Illusion du Bloc Bourgeois. Bruno Amable. Stefano Palombarini. Raisons d’agir. 2017. Speculation that François Hollande and his immediate circle played a part in Macron’s Presidential ascension has waned with the publication of memories reproaching his one-time protégé for his actions.

(2) The Road to Somewhere. The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics. David Goodhart. Hurst & Company. 2017.

(3) Page 283. Macron: miracle ou mirage? Pierre-André Taguieff. Editions l’Observatoire. August 2017

(4) Face à Macron, la gauche ou le populisme? Stefano Palombarini

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9 Responses

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  1. Still Petrel, the good news is you can vote these guys and gals out of office. Unlike Assad they don’t have to be bombed out.

    Steven Johnston

    April 24, 2018 at 9:29 am

  2. Steven, I thought the sentence by Anicet Le Pors, that Macron is “mandated” by all kinds of bourgeois forces rather left out the obvious point that people voted him into office.

    Andrew Coates

    April 24, 2018 at 11:52 am

  3. Hitler was also voted into office, as was May and Trump. And your point is, caller?

    Social Justice Warrior

    April 24, 2018 at 12:19 pm

  4. We can vote out May, people in the US can vote out Hitler, French people can vote out Macron, they can’t vote out Hitler.

    Andrew Coates

    April 24, 2018 at 12:30 pm

  5. Funny how these wordpress articles always say how rotten the Western leaders are. Now you’ll get no argument from me, but where are the articles denouncing the leaders in China, the Middle East, Central America, South America, Africa etc. Some of those you can’t even vote out! Even if you wanted to.
    At least at the next election the voters in France can decide and if Macron loses the election he will have the good grace to go.

    Steven Johnston

    April 24, 2018 at 1:31 pm

  6. Well Social Justice Warrior, I guess you were one of those lefties who told the French not to vote for Macron?

    Steven Johnston

    April 24, 2018 at 1:48 pm

  7. Or indeed one of those warriors from Coutnerfire who were willing to fight to the last French person if Marine Le Pen won, but refused to back people on the French left who called to vote for Macron against her.

    Andrew Coates

    April 24, 2018 at 5:27 pm

  8. […] His ambition was to build a society open to global commerce, innovatory and entrepreneurial. Yet as Brice Couturier noted in his book, Macron, the Philosopher President, he would find it hard to win over “la France périphérique”. […]


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