Thursday, 20 July 2017

From Jupiter to Mars

The resignation of the head of the French military over some relatively modest budget cuts has been greeted by Emmanuel Macron's global fan club as evidence of a firm hand: "I'm the boss". This display of imperium sits alongside the "elegance and discretion" that the French President apparently showed in his recent hosting of Donald Trump on Bastille Day, an event long on symbolism and handshakes but short on policy substance. Both of these pieces of theatre display the "Jupiterian" style that Macron had previously demanded of the presidency, a term that has been widely interpreted to mean a renewed moral seriousness as much as grandeur (le président profond). But it's a word that should also raise an eyebrow, not just for its hint of megalomania but because Jupiter is actually the codename of the bunker at the Élysée Palace from which the President would launch France's nuclear weapons (or "thunderbolts", as we should presumably now call them). In fact, this isn't a novel coinage in French political discourse but a term that was applied to previous presidents, notably Charles De Gaulle and Francois Mitterrand, both of whom are seen as epitomes by Macron, though it's worth emphasising that this earlier usage was both admiring and facetious.

The term "Jupiterian" is ambiguous because it can refer either to a president who enjoys a supportive Legislative Assembly, as Macron does, or one who is obliged to cohabit with a Prime Minister representing a different party, as Mitterrand did on two separate occasions. Jupiter may be aloof because he commands all he surveys and can let the lesser gods execute his will, or he may be aloof because he has been excluded from domestic policy (the French President retains control of foreign and military affairs in a cohabitation). One reason for the apparently friendly relations of Macron and Trump may be the shared interest in how to get your way with a notionally supportive legislature. Just as Trump has discovered that he knows no more about the Republican Party's internal dynamics than he does about the intricacies of healthcare, so Macron may well be wondering how reliable his neophyte La République En Marche deputies will be once his reform programme faces concerted opposition. Given that REM remains as much a bourgeois social movement as a disciplined party machine, and thus prey to special interests and eccentricity as much as factionalism, he has reason to be cautious.

It is easy to laugh at Macron's monarchical pretensions, but this is clearly a considered strategy rather than a personal foible. The aim is presumably to elevate neoliberal reform ("Le Projet") above the political and ideological fray and associate it with French identity ("Nos ancêtres les gaulois étaient des entrepreneurs de le soi"). He must make the project hegemonic to achieve legislative results. Though the "liberal international" are more likely to compare Macron to Barack Obama or Justin Trudeau, the more relevant comparison is with the now somewhat unfashionable Tony Blair in terms of totalising ambition and vulnerability to misplaced certainty. Where they differ is in momentum. Blair not only had 3 years to make the project normative but was building on foundations laid over the preceding decade by Neil Kinnock and John Smith as much as Margaret Thatcher. Macron achieved much the same result in under 2 years having first written off the utility of the Parti Socialiste and against the background of numerous false starts under Chirac, Sarkozy and Hollande. What this suggests is that he considers a performative urgency as fundamental to the success of his presidency. In Napoleonic terms (and he clearly does think this way), he is hoping for a rapid Italian campaign.

While some French presidents have seen international relations as a compensation for domestic weakness, Macron appears to see it as a field of exemplary action (just as Blair enthusiastically did and Obama pointedly didn't). In this context the blunt appraisals of France's role in Algeria (a "crime against humanity") and the Holocaust (specifically the state's part in the Velodrome d'Hiver roundup) are intended to echo the Gaullist ideal of the President as the teller of home truths rather than a distant monarch, even though this means challenging Gaullist orthodoxy (Algeria was a tragedy, Vichy was not France). In this he is aided by the international media's tendency to treat him as the inheritor of the Enlightenment. This is ironic not only because France put "bad faith" at the centre of twentieth century philosophy (and continues to exhibit it in politics, to judge by Mélenchon's comments on Vel d'Hiv), but because the country was central to the creation of liberal interventionism, which has been anything but enlightened in practice. Interfering in the affairs of others is assumed to have emerged during the 19th century as a characteristic of British foreign policy, with its roots in the campaign to end the slave trade, but the French Revolutionary Wars saw the beginning of both internationalism (the attempt to spread specific political practices) and intervention (the attempt to reverse specific political developments), with the First Coalition against France being the original coalition of the willing.

This might appear an odd claim given that it sought to restore Louis XVI and was mostly made up of monarchies considered even more backward than the ancien regime, but it is important to remember that liberal intervention has usually sought the restoration of a status quo ante. In other words, it is generally conservative in practice even when it adopts the rhetoric of progress. Given the dissonance this gives rise to, there is a tendency to focus the justification for intervention on the opponent's bad behaviour. This also applies in the domestic sphere. Neoliberal labour and welfare reforms are always predicated in part on the assumed failings of workers and benefit recipients, even when these are rationalised as the byproduct of a system of perverse incentives rather than moral delinquency. Macron gave an example of how these tropes can overlap in his thoughtless comments on developing nations in Africa when he talked of the need for "a fight against corruption, a fight for good governance, a successful demographic transition when countries today have seven or eight children per woman". The role of France in facilitating corruption and undermining governance in Africa was lost in the ensuing fuss over the "careless breeders" slur.

Writing a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Linda Colley noted (in a June 1989 review of Simon Schama's Citizens and William Doyle's The Oxford History of the French Revolution) that "Before 1789, most Britons had regarded most Frenchmen as sad and suffering creatures oppressed by Catholic priests, exorbitant tax-collectors, and absolute and irresponsible monarchs. So initially many Britons felt only condescending sympathy when the Bastille was stormed. ... But as the Revolution grew in scale and subversion, it became more important for conservatives to undermine this easy sympathy. They did so with stunning success by shifting the public’s attention from the causes of the Revolution to its more unpleasant and violent manifestations. In particular, from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France onwards, conservatives employed stories of actual or invented human suffering (Marie Antoinette’s plight, for instance) to undermine enthusiasm for any political or social virtues the Revolution might possess". Colley's point was that this approach was still common, though more as a result of the 1970s French revisionist school of history that sought to establish a genealogy between the Terror and Stalin (and even the Holocaust, which echoes in Macron's "daring" on the subject), rather than any particular British perspective.

Within France, this ideological purpose was combined with a desire to reassert the global significance of the country after the Gaullist revival ran out of steam under the twin pressures of post-1973 economic angst and post-soixante-huitard cultural scepticism. A key part of the revisionist case was the claim that ancien regime France, far from being corrupt and inefficient, was actually highly developed and a leader in state-sponsored industrialisation. There is some truth in this (e.g. textiles and armaments), though it requires ignoring the backwardness of French agriculture (food shortages were an important factor in the years leading to 1789), but it is also clear that the argument was exaggerated to suggest that a liberal state could have been achieved without violence (though it wasn't in Britain) and to undermine the Marxist reading of revolution as a superstructural crisis driven by an emergent bourgeoisie where class violence was unavoidable. One flaw in the revisionist argument is the systemic violence of the ancien regime, not just in its apparatus of social control, memorably detailed by Michel Foucault, but in its belligerence towards other countries (France was Europe's leading "rogue state" in the eighteenth century). The political order was not going to go down without a fight.

Macron's project is neoliberal, but with the strong statist bias that is a characteristic of the French political tradition. Many of his centrist supporters outside the country initially thought that he heralded a new phase of liberalism (a "restoration" after the madness of Brexit and Trump), which is why some are distressed by the early signs of authoritarianism. But this is to ignore the sense within France itself that the country has been treading water since the Mitterrand years, which in turn explains some of the attraction of Macron's sense of urgency: France must be forced rapidly through its neoliberal phase if it is to first revive its sense of national purpose and optimism (the Britpop tribute at the recent France-England friendly was revealing) and then provide the motive force for a rejuvenated European Union (in this view, Germany is insufficiently inspiring ). Though Macron's engagement of Trump and Putin recalls the florid but insubstantial "amity" of an earlier diplomatic age, the audience for these rituals is primarily domestic, not international. The aim is to restore the presidency as the irresistible force of French politics.

What Macron is promising is a state-led revolution whose template is the implied counterfactual of that 70s-era revisionist history: an enlightened technocracy delivers a programme of economic and social liberalism, avoiding violence through high seriousness and civic patriotism, while acting as a moral exemplar for all the nations of the earth. The problem is that economic liberalism promotes violence: the "social murder" that John McDonnell was criticised for explicitly naming recently. Macron may acknowledge the mistakes of the state - which is to say, the errors of less capable men - but he will not accept that the violence of the state arises inescapably from the needs of capitalism. That said, he may prove lucky in his timing. Not only has the eclipse of the UK and the incoherence of the US boosted France's international standing, but the prospect of decent Eurozone growth and the attraction of Paris relative to a post-Brexit London means that "reform" might proceed against a healthier economic backdrop. The danger is that slow progress on the domestic front, particularly if its is associated with street protests and strikes, might encourage Macron to attempt decisive action abroad, if only to deflect the violence of the state. He might be cutting military expenditure today, but that could quickly change.


  1. Ben Philliskirk21 July 2017 at 12:06

    For ignorance of French political and intellectual culture, even by the 'radical' left, you only have to look at this and the accompanying thread:

    IMO, only MFB really gets to grips with the issue.

    1. Mélenchon is a bog-standard French chauvinist, not an anti-semite (as far as I know), and is just presenting himself in the tradition of De Gaulle: there is an essential France that transcends the crimes of the state. This chauvinism looks over-the-top to a Brit, but it's par for the course in France.

      The Vel d'Hiv face-off looks like positioning ahead of the anticipated clashes over the domestic programme: Macron is saying that the state itself is not inviolable (i.e. it can be reformed) while Mélenchon is rhetorically constructing a popular France that is being affronted by a thoughtless government. The parallels with 1789 are obvious.