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Macron & French History: The “No Taboo” Paradigm

ARTICLES - 7 December 2017

My inspiration came from Emmanuel Macron’s quote: “I come from a generation which, from a historical perspective, has neither totems nor taboos.” (interview with L’Histoire,Huffington post, March 22, 2017).

French Presidents have long had a passionate, sometimes compulsive even, relation to History. History is indeed often invoked to establish their legitimacy, and thus their power. This instrumentalisation can even go a step further for those who use it as a lever for governing, when times are tough for instance. How else can we explain the emergence initiated by Nicolas Sarkozy in 2009 of the national identity debate, right after the worse hours of the 2008 economic crisis?

To each President its History

The archaeological analysis of this French presidential passion can allow us to distinguish different types of successive layers.

The founder of the Fifth Republic, General Charles de Gaulle, made it very clear he wanted his body to rest at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, his hometown, and thus never at the Pantheon, the mausoleum containing the remains of distinguished French citizens. Besides, he conferred this honor only to Jean Moulin, while his successors “pantheonized” at least as much to celebrate the greatest figures of the Republic as to imprint their own actions in people’s minds. Former President François Mitterrand did not benefit from the same aura as General de Gaulle. He thus inaugurated his first mandate by walking up the Rue Soufflot, where the Pantheon is located in Paris, in a theatrical staging, which remained famous, on 21 May 1981, to go lay a rose on the coffins of Jean Jaurès, a socialist leader, Jean Moulin, a resistant of the Second World War and Victor Schoelcher, an abolitionist who combatted slavery. Moreover, during his two presidential terms, he gave access to the Pantheon to no less than seven men and one woman, Marie Curie, the first female recipient of such honor.

François Mitterrand’s attachment to History and to those who make it goes very deep. He never failed to mark his attachment to intellectuals, he who, in another life, would have loved to be a writer. Could we imagine today a party leader, candidate to the presidential election, spending the evening discussing on television with French intellectuals such as the historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, or the writers Michel Tournier and Patrick Modiano? This is what Mitterrand did, in Bernard Pivot’s literary television show Apostrophes, an evening of 1978. He enjoyed seeing the historians Fernand Braudel or Georges Duby, a specialist of the medieval era, whom he missioned in 1985 to create the cultural channel “la Sept”, which later became today’s Arte. The President gave the responsibility to another historian, Jean-Noël Jeanneney, to chair the Mission of theFrench Revolution's Bicentenary in 1988.

His successors Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande demonstrated a far weaker interest in marking their footprints in the course of French History. Two “pantheonizations” under Chirac, the renowned writers André Malraux in 1996 and Alexandre Dumas in 2002; only one under Sarkozy, Aimé Césaire in 2011; four under Hollande, all in one go, Pierre Brossolette, Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz, Germaine Tillon and Jean Zay in 2015… Sarkozy was probably the most willing, he who sought to open the doors of the Pantheon to the writer and philosopher Albert Camus, and then to the historian Marc Bloch. He was confronted both times to their heir’s reluctance. The entry of Aimé Césaire, the anticolonial author, poet and politician, in the Pantheon gave rise to some contortions. Indeed, the instigator of the national identity debate, the same man who had pointed out that “the African had not entered History enough” in Dakar on 26 July 2007, had to recognize on this occasion (April 2011) that “our Republican ideal cannot be the negation of singular identities. This ideal can only be the enrichment of these identities by a shared history, a culture, and values ​​that are added to, rather than they replace, what each has inherited from their own History”.

Nicolas Sarkozy’s interest turned out to be at least partly sincere, in particular under the influence of his advisor Camille Pascal, who organized meetings for him with some intellectuals, thus reconnecting with the practice which ironically had been common under… François Mitterrand. This explains for instance the lunch organized around Emmanuel de Waresquiel, Talleyrand's famous biographer, Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, an internationally renowned specialist of World War I, and Christophe Prochasson, one of France’s best specialists of Socialism and the Republic… who returned to the presidential palace a few years later, this time as special advisor in education to François Hollande. We should remember that Sarkozy’s presidential term was first and foremost that of a great disorder and ideological clash, most often abusing the delicate foundations on which the Republican consensus rests.Proud to present himself to the French as a “French of mixed blood”, proud to pay tribute to the memory of Guy Môquet, a French communist militant killed during the World War II, Nicolas Sarkozy will nonetheless be remembered as the agitator of a blurry and instrumental debate on national identity on the one hand, and for his rejection of repentance on the other. The latter might actually be most in line with his profound convictions, as the 2016 right wing party’s primaries demonstrated. Indeed, on that occasion, Sarkozy returned to his narrow conception of French history: “no matter the nationality of your parents, when you become French, your ancestors are the Gauls and Vercingetorix.”

In comparison, Jacques Chirac’s twelve years in power are remembered as a period of wisdom and appeasement.France owes him the speech made on 16 July 1995, three months after his accession to the Élysée. It was delivered during the ceremony commemorating the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup, a Nazi-directed raid by the French police, which took place in Paris in July 1942, and which was followed by the deportation and extermination of most of those arrested. That day, President Chirac dared to break with the Gaullo-Mitterrandian doxa, according to which, Vichy not being France, France had not been involved in the deportation of Jews. His words were clear, and contained no ambiguity: “in the life of a nation, there are moments which hurt both our memory, and the idea that one has of one's country”, underlining that “these dark hours forever stain our history, and are an insult to our past and our traditions. Yes, the occupier was assisted in his criminal folly by French people and the French State.”

Joan of Arc, Vichy & Algeria

Each President thus deploys his relation to History by revealing a part of himself. Greatness for de Gaulle; the quest for political and intellectual legitimacy for Mitterrand; appeasement and reconciliation for Chirac; the worst and the best for Sarkozy. As for the trace left by François Hollande, it is lost in the innumerable commemorations to which his term gave rise. Can we try to guess the kind of relationship Emmanuel Macron will have to France’s History? Will it find its roots in Ricœur's philosophy, whom Macron helped shape his book “Memory, History and Oblivion”? This work actually warns of the sometimes difficult companionship between History and memory: “Memory is the matrix of History but its omnipresence can make historical analysis difficult. At other times, its absence is cruel, and forgetfulness reigns in seemingly unfair terms. Often, the work and the discourse of memory influence and orient historical work”.

Macron’s first important decision – announced on 5 July 2017 during the national tribute to Simone Veil, a feminist lawyer and politician, who liberalized abortion – was her “pantheonization” and that of her husband. Such a choice seems to place the young President, born 30 years after World War II, in François Mitterrand’s and Jacques Chirac’s lineage. The same goes for his first commemorations, at Oradour-sur-Glane, a French village destroyed by the Nazis during the World War II, and at the Vel’ d’Hiv’. But is it so clear?

Emmanuel Macron’s gestures throughout his campaign and since his accession to power show how aware he is of the historical dimension’s importance, almost as if it were consubstantial to his role as President. He began to assimilate it as part of his persona during the campaign and expressed it explicitly in his speech in front of the Parliament gathered in Congress on 3 July 2017: “We too will have made history, not by reclaiming it for what it could be, but by focusing on reality, and by keeping our minds and our wills stretched towards what is best. This is what we call progressivism.”

Despite his objections, the head of State is a secular priest, who tells History and contributes to its interpretation. Conversely, his slightest move is interpreted too. This is both a great opportunity and a great risk, as the slightest word from him can provoke a deep and lasting memory crisis.

The 2017 presidential campaign generated a lot of controversy. Only a happy few will forget Marine Le Pen’s declaration on the Vel’ d’Hiv’, two weeks prior to the first round of the election: “I think that, generally speaking, if some are responsible, it’s those who were in power at the time. It’s not France. France has been mistreated in people’s minds for years. Our children were taught they have all the reasons to criticize [our country], and to only see, perhaps, the darkest aspects of our history. So I want them to be proud of being French again.” To which Macron immediately responded: “Some had forgotten that Marine Le Pen is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen”, before praising Jacques Chirac who “had endorsed his responsibilities and made a brave gesture on 16 July 1995 by recognizing the role of France and the French State in the deportation of Jews for the first time”.

While he was still Minister, Emmanuel Macron chose to combat the National Front, France’s far-right party. Probably at least partly because of his personal convictions, but also because the scenario according to which Marine Le Pen would make it to the run-off in the presidential elections had become obvious a long time in advance. It is no coincidence if Macron accepted the Mayor of Orléans’ invitation to take part in the Joan of Arc Festival in May 2016, almost exactly two months after he launched his movement En Marche!. A way of reclaiming Joan of Arc and to free her from the claws of the Le Pen family, by whom she was held hostage since 1988. To do so, Macron’s speech emphasized two interwoven themes, which would later become the conducting wire of the En Marche! leader’s campaign, according to whom Joan both “split the system” and “managed to unite and reconcile France”.

The campaign was also a moment where Emmanuel Macron yielded to the temptation to defend and illustrate his idea of a “national narrative”. He sided very resolutely with those who believe that “one cannot teach history without chronology”. How could one prove him wrong… even if History is much more than that? This conception goes hand in hand with a marked emphasis on both narrated History and the determining role of a number of men, women, symbols and objects in the History of France, on which he insisted during the Joan of Arc Festival in May 2016: “Joan of Arc, as our other great figures, as our national anthem, as our flag, is our legacy, the History we have in common, what makes us and brings us together.”

At the same time, he expresses his esteem for a particular historical trend, incarnated by Patrick Boucheron, a professor at the prestigious College of France, who opposes some of concepts defended during his campaign. An inclination he articulated very explicitly in an interview for the journal L’Histoire: “I’ve been very interested lately in the stimulating Global History of France directed by Patrick Boucheron.” In the same interview, he clarifies his vision of a national narrative: “When I advocate for the return to a national narrative, it is to highlight that 1805 comes from 1789, which itself is born out of the womb of the deep currents formed under the Old Regime [the feudal and monarchic political system in place in France before the French Revolution] - remember the Jansenists’ role during the French Revolution! Joan of Arc is also a heroine of the Republic, Clovis is not the prerogative of a certain catholic tradition, the third Republic emerges from the blood spilled during the Commune de Paris [the 1871 insurrection against the French government]. It means that a segmented History serving ideologies does not give us the keys necessary to unlock the answers for the coming world”.

As the first round of the presidential elections approached, the very peculiar atmosphere surrounding the campaign – which was particularly tense, given the newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné’s revelations on François Fillon and what we now refer to as the “PenelopeGate”– became increasingly electric. On 14 February 2017 in Algiers, Emmanuel Macron, faithful as always to his motto “neither totem nor taboo” declared on a private Algerian channel: “Colonization is part of French history. It’s a crime, a crime against humanity. It’s a barbarity.”On the television set, the candidate looks stiff, as he struggles to find his words. First “crime”, then “crime against humanity”, where “barbarity” almost alleviates, even corrects, his statement… He seeks to amend the effects of an interview he gave to Le Point in November 2016, which addresses Colonization, a period which has generated “elements of civilization and elements of barbarity”. A risky topic for the young candidate, who is more comfortable with economic and social issues, at a time where the French are curious to know his take on sovereign issues, as well as his determination… An opportunity instantly seized by François Fillon, who the next day, on 15 February, argued: “Not too long ago, Mr. Macron found positive aspects to Colonization. This means Emmanuel Macron has no backbone. He says to those who listen just what they want to hear.” From the end of the previous month of August, the former Prime minister, who was at the time candidate to the primaries of the right-wing and centrist party, had toughened his position on these issues: “No, France is not guilty of the will it had to share its culture with people from Africa, Asia and North America. No, France did not invent slavery”.

At the end of Emmanuel Macron’s mad week spent between Algeria and the South of France, the French remain hesitant. According to the pollster IFOP, 51% approved his declaration while 49% condemned it. Things only got worse for the En Marche! candidate, who then traveled to the Vaucluse and the Var, departments that historically hosted many French citizens repatriated from Algeria. His trip is disrupted by protesters and supporters of the National Front shouting “Macron, treason!”. During a rally, the candidate bends but does not break. He no longer speaks of the “crimes against humanity” of France’s colonial past, but of “crimes against humans”. “I have understood you and I love you”, he oddly proclaims during another rally in Toulon. This reference to General de Gaulle’s famous speech in Algiers on 4 June 1958, does not please those who feel they have been abandoned, or even betrayed, at the time. This clumsy declaration is enough to revive and fuel the controversy.

Claiming, as he does, his mastery of complex thought, poorly adapted to the media and to the simplifications proper to every campaign, Emmanuel Macron asserts his will to reconcile memories during his speech in Orléans in May 2016: “I want to reconcile the country with its past, with its History. I know, you’ll say, this week, you failed. You’ll say, all he did was divide us, light wicks everywhere, light fires. Let me tell you, I will pursue to do so.” The candidate nonetheless remains more confused than it seems, as he tries to justify himself and gets lost in his own contradictions. Of course, his ambition to be pedagogic, his “neither totems nor taboos” approach to gather and reconcile is all very well, but how do you accommodate this with his personal and emotional involvement in this whole affair? Indeed, a few weeks later, he claimed: “the essential thing for me is not to convey my understanding [of this affair], but rather to assure my affection to those whom I may have hurt.” The triangle memory/transgression/(need for) love is disconcerting. This mad week reminds us of the most irrational hours of the Sarkozy period… In the end, only the announcement of centrist François Bayrou’s political support to Macron’s candidacy, the following week, put an end to this bad sequence.

A vision of History?

Beyond these campaign twists, Emmanuel Macron spent many months before and during the campaign refining his vision of History. He has already opened many different paths and he – rightly – aims to have a complex apprehension of these matters. As he said in his interview with L’Histoire: “great changes lead to moments of extreme fragility. (...) If we let forces of entropy take over, everything can collapse.”

Given the “both right- and left-wing” position he had defended throughout his campaign, it is no surprise that the President promoted a balance between a “patriotic” and yet “open” project, “because being patriotic is to love the French people, its history, but to love it in an open way”.One can hardly oppose this traditional definition of the French Republic or criticize Macron for trying to reconcile contradicting, almost antagonistic, memories. However, both the method used and the moment he chose are problematic. Indeed, this project requires pedagogy and patience, i.e. conditions which are rarely met during a presidential campaign, as it is unfortunately by definition a phase of violent and caricatured political clashes. In this regard, the February 2017 episode on Algeria is symptomatic of a form of amateurism, improvisation or naivety, or maybe a combination of all three.

These hesitations weighed from one end to the other of the campaign. Thus, the candidate declared that “for too long, some have thought that History was over, that Europe had eradicated from its territory all form of conflict, that the course of the world was going to dilute identities, ideologies and religions” and that these same people “were mistaken, because History, each day, consistently, sometimes relentlessly, comes knocking at your door”. However, the elected President breaks with this realistic vision by making the following commitment before the entire national representation: “we will remain faithful to this promise of our beginnings, this promise we will keep because it is the greatest, the most beautiful there can be: to finally create a country worthy of Mankind”. Which is a way to return to the end of History… Such a paradoxical injunction would amount to holding together the supporters of the “happy identity” and the neo-realists who opposed each other during the primaries of the right-wing and centrist party. They have since then completed the terms of their separation… At least the former did not fuel their reflection with an almost demiurgic universal ambition!

The latest intellectual project launched by Macron: a project which enables the understanding of the stage of difficulty of our democracy. Yet again, his answers are conflicting. In his opinion, the only History worth existing is a History which reinvests the people and gives it the importance it deserves. “The great figures of History do not speak with us. They never sought to send us any message. We alone make them speak, we alone build a legend around them, and we rely on them to better understand ourselves. I do not believe either that there is such a thing as providential men or women. What does exist is the energy of the people, and the bravery of those who engage in action.” Emmanuel Macron’s approach has sometimes been unfairly criticized for embracing certain common traits of the populist wave spread by the two presidential campaign twins, radical right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen and radical left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Indeed, he did not hesitate to carry a harsh discourse towards the traditional elites and corporatism, which, according to him, “block” the country.

How can we thus reconcile this aspiration to make heard or carry the voice of the people - which is what the “Grande Marche” project made possible by accomplishing an allegedly unprecedented diagnosis on the state of the country - and his aspiration to more verticality? A surprising interview, given in 2015, confirms this tension. Macron as Minister of the Economy then declared, on the French Revolution, that “the French people did not want the King’s death. Terror delved an emotional, imaginary and collective emptiness: the King is gone, democracy does not fill the space…” Must the solution come from below? From above? Where does Emmanuel Macron stand exactly? At the heart of the demos and at the same time on Olympus?


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