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Inside Macron’s Mind: A Tint of Paul Ricœur

ARTICLES - 24 November 2017

The philosopher Michaël Foessel, who teaches at Ecole Polytechnique, did warn us: "What does it change politically speaking to know if the new president is endowed with conceptual agility or if he is a faithful disciple of ‘Ricœurian hermeneutics’?" He recalls that regardless, given his responsibilities as head of State, Macron will have to deal with the conflict between opinions on what is right, effective or preferable. Fortunately, there is no book or knowledge that can put an end to this conflict. 

In my opinion, this statement is in itself a philosophical choice among others. Still, trying to understand Macron’s "philosophy" – which is not the same thing as considering him as a philosopher – is an interesting exercise in itself. Indeed, only his "philosophical" preferences make it possible to get a grasp of his political ideology, as it enables the identification of his political ideas, which are the ones enlightening his decisions, and, perhaps even more strikingly, his way of taking those decisions. 


Macron is well-read, but he is obviously not a philosopher, just like the presidents who preceded him. This does not imply that he is not endowed with a "philosophy" of his own, not only in the original sense of the word – a taste for knowledge –, but also in its modern sense – attached to a so-called political philosophy, namely a specific understanding of justice and legitimacy. My take is that Macron is strongly influenced by Paul Ricoeur’s philosophy.

Originally, this inspiration came from the fortunes of life. Thanks to one of his former teachers, François Dosse, Macron was able to work personally for Paul Ricœur. Dosse published in 1997 the biography of reference on Paul Ricœur. Two years later, he provided the latter with the student he had been looking for to help him complete his memoirs. Macron was tasked with checking and completing his notes and referencing. The young Emmanuel had the nerve to go beyond the initial frame of missions and thus decided to write "orientation notes" and include not only suggestions for quotations, but also at times approvals of certain parts, and even criticisms. Within just a couple of years, the 22-year-old student and the 86-year-old master developed a strong relationship, which François Dosse just recently described as "emotional, from the adopted son toward the spiritual (grand)father".

What could have been a mere moment of life was the beginning of an influence. How was it established? Blessed is he who can enter into the complexity of Paul Ricœur's thoughts… This would imply both a mastery of Husserl’s phenomenology and a thorough knowledge of hermeneutics. It is not forbidden, however, to recall a few of his traits, by simplifying them to the extreme. At the risk, of course, of caricaturing and giving weapons to true philosophers who want to be malicious. So be it.


I would like to suggest that there is a kinship between phenomenology and "Macronism". In its broadest definition, phenomenology is a philosophical conception according to which the mind constitutes the conditions of intelligibility of what can be known. In the words of Merleau-Ponty, "phenomenology is the study of essences (...), a philosophy that puts essences back into existence and does not think we can understand man and world otherwise than from their ‘facticity’" It does not explain the world, but describes it from lived experiences. In this context, Ricœur introduced Husserl’s phenomenology in France, notably in his thesis Philosophy of the Will (1950), whose first volume was entitled The Voluntary and the Involuntary. According to him, phenomenology establishes a "duality of intelligibility", which reveals the tension between two contrary elements.

Let us dare then the approximation that may legitimately appear abusive: Macron’s constant reference to the expression "et en même temps…", which in English translates to "yet at the same time…", this observation of, say, "white", which is immediately followed by the opposite finding of reality, say, "black". On the same register, you may recall his self-qualification of "both from the right and from the left", at the very launch of his political movement En Marche ! in April 2016. These phrases seem to echo with the "duality of intelligibility", on which Ricœur used to insist so much. Olivier Abel, a professor of philosophy and ethics at the Protestant Institute of Theology in Montpellier, makes this connection between Macron and Ricœur: for example, wanting simultaneously to both liberalize work and protect the most precarious is a way of introducing a sustainable tension between two seemingly incompatible statements, which is "really, very Ricœurian".


In the same article, the aforementioned François Dosse underlines another aspect of the Ricœurian imprint, that of the "fallible" yet "capable"man – capable to just be himself. Throughout the campaign, us French heard so much this recurrent exhortation to "do everything to make men capable", this constant call for citizens to reach "the free disposition of themselves", this vibrant hymn encouraging each and every one to “realize their talent", "exercise their freedom", "choose their life"!


There is a third dimension to Macron’s inspiration of Ricœur – that of the primacy given to narratives. The candidate ended up responding to the political and media injunction to produce a much awaited electoral program, by articulating together his main proposals. Nevertheless, this obligatory exercise – to "satisfy the media Moloch", as he once confessed both lucidly and impertinently –, occupied only a secondary place in his discourse, fundamentally focused on his vision of the state of France, the exhaustion of old politics, the necessity of inventing novel ways of going about it… For his detractors, all this was perceived as mere storytelling, manufactured by the political marketing of advertising, just as superficial as artificial, just as talented as hollow. I see this as easy denigration of opponents, by principle (in spite of the fact they probably never took the time to read a single Ricœur line). Ricœur emphasized the importance of the "power to tell", the necessity and the strength of narratives, an essential component of "the capable man", because the power of narratives occupies a pre-eminent place among the capacities, in that events of all kinds become visible and intelligible only as told through stories.

Nicolas Truong, in a very rich article, underlines other similarities between the president and the philosopher. He recalls that in his book "Memory, History, Oblivion", Ricœur pleads for "politics of the right memory", as opposed to the "too much memory here, too much forgetfulness elsewhere", which could explain several of Macron’s statements, starting with the one he was criticized for the most during the campaign – using the phrase "crime against humanity" to coin French Colonization of Algeria. 

Political philosophy 

The influence of Ricœur’s ideas on those of Macron raises questions that deserve further study. Does the thoughts of the master really correspond to political philosophy? Is Macron truly, deeply inspired by them? If "Macronism" were to exist for real, should we not go back at least a Century further, as suggested by Bruno Viard, which marks the origin of Pierre Leroux and his Republican – even Liberal – Socialism? All these evocations may be sinful, as the anachronisms are rewarding, especially if we opt for the idea that Macron, as his predecessors, actually functions pragmatically. A pragmatism adorned with the garment of pseudo-philosophical elements… However convincing these objections may be, it still seems to me that the shadow of the "Ghost of Philosopher-Past" continues to follow the president today.

In a nutshell, a variety of realms locate well Emmanuel Macron in the wake of Paul Ricœur: insistence on duality and the need to overcome it, possibility of the capable man, power to tell narratives, legitimacy of the right memory… Let us add a fifth point to conclude, which was noted by Truong, who links his open conception of the French identity to the dialectic of the same and the other, dear to the author of "Oneself as Another" (1990). On this track, everyone can prolong the game, even with irony, and enjoy an elaborate version of the notion "at the same time" in Ricœur’s own sentence, according to which "the esteem of the other as oneself is equivalent to the esteem of oneself as another".


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