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Emmanuel Macron, from "I" to "We"

BLOG - 6 May 2019

Emmanuel Macron spoke at a press conference on 25 April, in order to respond to the expectations raised during the great national debate. It was also the opportunity for him to reaffirm the overall direction of his policies and to justify the decisions taken during the first part of his five-year term. What are the key takeaways from his intervention? How can we read between the lines of a speech delivered by a President confronted to a major social crisis? An analysis by Bruno Cautrès, researcher at the CNRS and Cevipof.

In a review article on "The contribution of political science to the study of the languages of politics", the political scientist Philippe Braud recalls the importance of the symbolic power words hold in politics: "words are needed to identify actors and the nature of their relationships on the scale from friend to enemy; words are needed to situate actions on the spectrum of Good and Evil, i.e. to be able to either legitimize or stigmatize, which remains a crucial dimension of political confrontations (...). In politics, even more than elsewhere in social life, words are actions".

In a setting that dramatizes the verticality of the Elysée and symbolizes the return to a traditional form of press conference, Emmanuel Macron’s first goal, and perhaps even his only goal, was to reclaim a political agenda and a situation that have increasingly gone beyond his control in the past several months. Yet the crisis Emmanuel Macron is trying to overcome is not only limited to the explosion of the Yellow Vests’ popular anger. The latter is only the most visible, spectacular and painful part of the iceberg. The crisis that the executive is attempting by all means to subdue, given that it cannot manage to control it entirely, is a much deeper crisis. It began long before the Yellow Vests movement, when the President of the Republic faced the first real difficulties of his mandate, at the time of the "Benalla affair". It might even have started earlier, very soon after Emmanuel Macron’s election.

The Yellow Vest's crisis [...] is only the most visible, spectacular and painful part of the iceberg. The crisis that the executive is attempting by all means to subdue, given that it cannot manage to control it entirely, is a much deeper crisis.

While we must always be wary of retrospective reconstructions, which only give meaning to events a posteriori, it might be worth considering whether Emmanuel Macron’s announcement of a "revolution" to come is not largely responsible for the chasm of misunderstanding that has widened between him and a significant share of the French population. Emmanuel Macron ventured into a minefield when he proposed a "paradigm shift", particularly in the economic and social domains. If the rhetoric opposing the "old world" to the "new world" has lost the importance it initially had in the speeches of the executive and its entourage, it used to be a key element in the discourse Emmanuel Macron deployed in his conquest of power. The diagnosis according to which modern capitalist societies at the beginning of the 21st century are undergoing profound transformations is undoubtedly very accurate, but many French people’s lives are still affected by the social inequalities produced by the "old world".

The feeling of a ‘blocked’ France, where social destiny is a foregone conclusion, is predominant in public opinion - and (paradoxically) one that used to be the main focus of the Macronian project. The groups most affected by inequalities and most exposed to the new risks of globalization quickly considered that the promised "revolution" would not fundamentally improve their situation. This total misunderstanding became evident at the time of the reform of social security contributions: on the one hand, the government was constantly working on improving purchasing power; on the other, there was a widely felt frustration with the fact that this increase would only result in an extra few dozen euros per month on the pay slip. The same scenario occurred with the partial and progressive abolition of the housing tax, the announcement of the plan to combat poverty, or the "reste à charge 0" (the integral reimbursement of certain dentures, hearing aids, and glasses). Long before the Yellow Vests movement, multiple signs clearly indicated a significant break in the beam that had united Emmanuel Macron to those who expected a pragmatic politician, who could solve problems and help them to emancipate from inequalities.

This break was a major breach of confidence, as shown by Emmanuel Macron’s popularity curves, which almost reached François Hollande’s low levels of popularity in December. The challenge for Emmanuel Macron is now to try to reweave all, or at least part, of this beam. All of his recent speeches and statements aim towards this goal. On this matter, the analysis of his speech delivered at the Elysée on 25 April before the Q&A session with journalists is very telling. This text, which covers many topics, would require several analyses. There are indeed multiple ways of uncovering semantic secrets. But even before that, it is worth noting that the presidential speech is based on a subtle game of smoke and mirrors. Indeed, presented as a great breakthrough ("nothing will be the same as before"), this speech is in fact a revival of Emmanuel Macron's initial project. A political tactician in the best sense of the phrase, the President is also a good dialectician: as in judo, he uses the power of his opponent to better overthrow him. In tennis, it's called playing "McEnroe-style", i.e. taking the ball at the top of the bounce and letting the opponent wear himself out by trying to add effects or hitting the ball hard. Indeed, let there be no mistake: Emmanuel Macron has not given up on any significant aspect of his initial project. Merit, work, the call for French values, a society of equity over that of unwarranted advantages, the modernization of the State and the reflection on its perimeter, a new "act of decentralization", are just a few examples of the elements that punctuated, either explicitly or implicitly, the presidential speech of April 25. The question arises as to whether the latter was a reminder of Emmanuel Macron's original project, or merely that of the appearance of this project. In other words, has his initial project adapted to the end of the Yellow Vests crisis, or has it been called into question more fundamentally? Unless the initial Macronism is sufficiently malleable per se to reshape itself according to contexts and events.

Lexicometric analysis allows us to delve into the depths of the text of the presidential speech. It relies on statistical processing, which allows us to mine the selected data. The material processed is the text itself, i.e. all the words written before they were spoken by the President. The textual and semantic analysis of this material reveals one of its most hidden secrets: its goal was not so much to seduce a certain electorate, nor even to pass on messages to different segments of the population. The fundamental narrative structure of the presidential speech focuses less on the announcements or measures decided than on the willingness to bridge the gap between the President and the French.

The whole text is indeed based on the dual use of the pronouns "I" and "we". In this speech, Emmanuel Macron keeps trying both to include himself in the "we", and to extract himself from it, in order to better establish his role as a visionary guide who takes courageous decisions.

The whole text is indeed based on the dual use of the pronouns "I" and "we". In this speech, Emmanuel Macron keeps trying both to include himself in the "we", and to extract himself from it, in order to better establish his role as a visionary guide who takes courageous decisions. He wants to show us that he is "one of us" and not the "President of the rich"; but he also wants to affirm that nothing will divert him from his sacred mission, that of saving France. He portrays us, the French, with our qualities and our shortcomings, in order to better listen to our ills and thus emphasize his closeness to and his empathy with us, two qualities he is rarely credited with. He portrays himself as the leader of the Nation, pragmatic but very determined: he acts, he wants, he believes, he ambitions, he is entirely and "passionately" devoted to his mission. He probably hopes that this reformist enthusiasm will lead the French to temper their criticisms, blaming his mistakes on passion.

This call to merge once again, as during the fiery presidential rallies, is very clear in the word cloud of the presidential speech. The pronoun "we" occupies a central place, before the "I". All the connotations that refer to this "we" play a key role in the text of the speech: "we", "our", "our fellow citizens", "you", "we have". While the goal is to reconnect the presidential "I" with the French "we", it can easily be anticipated that the implementation of the measures announced and their more precise delineation in the future will spark tensions and conflicts of interpretation. The word cloud shows that the President skillfully avoided, on 25 April, using words that were too precise, in order not to awaken these potential tensions. The semantic field of action and of "doing" is also very present, underlining the positive dynamic in which the President inscribes the image of his action and future projects. Will this "co-construction", which he wants to be a part of (with local elected officials, social partners and the French people), be perceived as an authentic governance shift? Will the announced change in method and governance stay the course, or will we soon fall back into the fundamental divide that has settled in the country regarding Emmanuel Macron? With, on the one hand, the "President of the rich who doesn’t listen to the people" and on the other,  the "courageous reformer who stands by his program".

Only time will tell...


Copyright : Ludovic MARIN / AFP


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