Admiring Jupiter — the king of gods — is perhaps a little like admiring the Paris of Baron Haussmann. One can marvel at the length and openness of Haussmann’s boulevards as readily as at the sumptuous façades that loom aloof above them. But one’s enjoyment of the overarching harmony of urban Paris cannot run riot in good conscience when one knows, as Benjamin did, that there was a sinister repressive dimension to the city planning of a man they called l’artiste-démolisseur. Indeed, for one reason or another, it was within the framework of the puissant prefect’s boulevards that all ‘[t]he institutions of the bourgeoisie’s worldly and spiritual dominance were to find their apotheosis.’1
His deepest desires notwithstanding, no such apotheosis seems likely to occur on the watch of Emmanuel Macron, who has ascended to the Élysée — or descended from Olympus — at precisely the time when ‘[c]apitalism can no longer secure the positive adherence of working people to the system’.2 Still, we can say that the mighty Co-Prince of Andorra stands akin to his adopted city in as much as his aesthetic appeal disguises, and in places bears the marks of, his complete subordination to the will of the ruling class.
It’s true that young Macron was educated at the very same school as Weil, Sartre, Deleuze and Foucault, and that he studied under Balibar — himself a protégé of Althusser’s — at the world-renowned Sorbonne. We all know by now that in his early twenties, while at a loose end between two master’s degrees, the boy who would be king assisted Paul Ricoeur with La Mémoire, l’Histoire, l’Oubli and found time enough to write a novel or three of his own. As of late July 2017 there is not a soul among the liberal commentariat that has yet to be ‘subjugated’, as his wife Brigitte once was, by Macron’s ‘intelligence’ — his ‘full and perfect’ mind — which is never more in evidence than when he quotes Bataille to the nation, or professes his love for Gide, Camus and Rimbaud in public.
There are plenty on both sides of the Channel who believe that only a man as gifted as Macron, one as laden as him with all the treasure of cultural capital, could plausibly claim to have transcended the Left-Right paradigm. Indeed it seems to such cultists that no one in the vast and veritable pantheon of current heads of state — not even Justin Trudeau — can touch the rebel Jove, with His unearthly self-possession, His radiant winning smile, His sharp blue suits and their cutaway collars. He towers above us, then, as if upheld in ‘immemorial potency’, some godlike combination of le roi soleil, Julien Sorel and Remnick’s Obama.3
Of course, we have lapsed here into Macromania, the delusion that things are larger and therefore more impressive than they are in actuality. After all, Macron’s old school, with its cloistered grounds and medieval bell tower, is the Lycée Henri-IV, one of the most exclusive in all France. The third and last of Macron’s postgraduate qualifications was obtained at the École nationale d’administration (ENA), whose sole function is to swell the ranks of the power elite, albeit by just 80 or 90 of the Brightest Young Things per year. Macron, like most énarques before him, seamlessly entered the French Civil Service — or ‘state nobility’ — upon graduation, becoming an Inspector of Finances in the Ministry of Economy — a job for life if ever there was one. Towards the end of his stint in that position he served as rapporteur of the Attali Commission, which was tasked by Nicolas Sarkozy with conceiving new ways of ‘freeing up French growth’ and whose final report proposed a ‘sweeping liberalisation’ of the national economy.
In 2008, to the dismay of colleagues at the Inspectorate, Macron committed what remains the most contrary act of his professional life to date and bought himself out of his government contract so that he could pursue a career in investment banking. With the help of a friend he joined the highly prestigious Rothschild & Co, where he worked on the $12bn acquisition of Pfizer Nutrition by Nestlé, the multinational food and drink company infamous for its drive to privatise water resources the world over. Having made his pile, ‘the Mozart of finance’ became an adviser to François Hollande and later a minister in his government, before resigning from the shit-show, with its 4 per cent approval rating, for the simple reason that it wasn’t quite neoliberal enough. Then, in November 2016, Macron delivered an announcement that had been a long time in gestation: he would be running for president, not as a candidate of his and Hollande’s Socialist Party, but under the banner of En Marche, the centrist ‘movement’ he had founded in the spring.
What is obvious from any summation of this technocrat’s trajectory is the rank absurdness of seeing him as either an anti-systemic outsider or some kind of passionate progressive. And yet during his campaign — that master-class in style over substance — Macron tried his damnednest to position himself as both. The few policy proposals he did descend to vouchsafe were predictable enough in their content — in their ‘clear neoliberal orientation’. Among them was a promise to slash public spending by tens of billions of euros and another to lower corporation tax. And since taking office in May — for he duly dispatched Marine Le Pen in their second round run-off — Macron has strained hard to vindicate all those for whom he was never more than just the latest slick exponent of Blairite — or should that be Cleggite — triangulation.
For example, unmoved by the demands of Nuit debout, which he had helped to conjure while a minister, Macron in early June redoubled his determination to push ahead with his pet project of further flexibilising the labour market. In the second week of July his prime minister, the Republican Édouard Philippe, unveiled a raft of tax cuts, worth 11 billion euros, that will operate to benefit the ‘richest 10 per cent of France’s households’. On July 17, Macron told local authorities across the country that they would have to cut spending by 30% more over the next five years than had originally been planned. And Macronist austerity began in earnest on July 24, when the government announced, to a burst of indignation, that it was going to raid a ‘particular type of housing benefit’ that millions of the poorest people in the land depend upon. Far from being the man to weave a ‘contractual republic’ that will endeavour to ‘protect the weakest’, Macron is quite transparently the would-be saviour of the ruling class in France and liberalism in Europe — more Hyperion, then, than Jupiter. Except to the extent that it distracts us from this fact, his personal sophistication, no matter how arresting, is neither here nor there.
Of course, a goodly segment of the French electorate can be said to have had the measure of Macron’s ‘radical centrism’ from the beginning. These voters were wise to the fraudulence of his rhetoric, understood what his circumlocution concealed and saw his ‘insurgency’ — pitched as the sun — for the parhelion that it was and is showing itself to be. They preferred him to the despicable Le Pen — exactly as they should have done — but balked at giving him anything more affirmative than a ‘victory by default’. Hence abstention in the second round of June’s parliamentary elections stood at a record 57.4 per cent.
Instead the source and main vector of Macromania has been the press, which continues to look agog at its man like Narcissus at his reflection. The superprecocial political party set up by Macron — that is, the one which bears his initials — might have been the offspring of the old duopoly, but it was nourished carefully from birth by corporate journalists, who are drawn from broadly the same social stratum as Macron; inhabit the same ‘journalistic-literary-political culture’ as him; and after all are selected and rewarded for conformity to the same elite consensus that he has been anointed to advance. At any rate, one feels that this bulle médiatique — swollen though it is, like the head of its object — cannot obscure for very much longer the following realities. First, that En Marche is a movement in the same way that a Lazarus sign is a movement. Second, that it appears to be as spontaneous and dynamic as a freshly embalmed corpse. And third, that to call it ‘popular’ or ‘populist’ is about as accurate as speaking of Fred Trump’s beastly little sprog as a self-made man.
Alas, that part of the liberal class which applauded Macron for having authored a ‘quiet revolution of the centre’ cannot reasonably be expected to expose and oppose his austerian, firmly pro-business agenda. But over the past few weeks it will have found itself dialling down its adoration for a host of other (wholly valid) reasons. On June 26, for instance, Macron declared that the deposition of Bashar al-Assad was not a ‘prerequisite’ for peace in Syria. On July 11, he scandalously claimed that the challenges facing ‘Africa’ — that monolithic mass — were not rooted in colonialism, neo-colonialism or even straightforward poverty, but are ‘civilisational’ in nature and include ‘seven to eight children per woman’. On July 14 — Bastille Day — the French president sought eagerly to seduce a certain counterpart of his by means of the tawdriest show of pomp. Returning from Paris afterwards, Donald Trump, for once outdone in crassness, was able to taunt the boy king thus: ‘[h]e’s a great guy — smart, strong, loves holding my hand.’
More generally, Macron has, since taking office, faced criticism for his ‘authoritarian’ style of leadership, and also for his obsession with ‘harnessing the trappings of state to project personal authority’.4 Once or twice — like a stopped clock — this naked delight in the exercise of power has expressed itself in a strangely gratifying way; Macron’s smackdown of General Pierre de Villiers comes to mind, as does the assertion, made by an Élysée official after the cancellation of some press conference, that his thoughts are ‘too complex’ for hacks to handle. But on the whole such grandiosity is somewhat troubling, and shall only become more so if Macron decides to act on his willingness to govern by decree.
In any case, as things stand, far too many ‘centrists’ and liberals remain rabid Macromaniacs. The problem is that their response to Macron — as to Trump — is ‘aesthetic, rather than principled or substantive’.5 They appear not to care for policy ‘so long as everything [is] delivered with the right presidential packaging’. As Macron’s Jovian shtick degenerates into crass self-parody, the least we can say is that there exist quite serious doubts about their taste.
3. For obvious reasons the comparison to Sorel — who was described by Trilling in The Liberal Imagination as the ‘spiritual son of Napoleon’ — is especially striking. Unsurprisingly it is also one that Macron himself is fully aware of. On the table in Macron’s official portrait — that semiotician’s dream — lies open a copy of The Red and the Black.