Emmanuel Macron started his presidency talking like a revolutionary – now he uses the language of a monarch

Emmanuel Macron finds himself in a tricky situation of late. Elected just two years ago, he quickly came under heavy criticism, and even took the title of most unpopular president of the current Republic from his predecessor, François Hollande. His policies are attacked by critics across the political spectrum, and have led to large, national protests.

Macron’s original election campaign pitched him as a young, charismatic man out to overturn a system whose stagnation was enabling populism to grow out of control. Now he stands accused of “enabling the populism he was supposed to defeat” — a far cry from the hopeful ideal of his campaign.

Before he was elected as president, Macron published a short book called, simply, “Revolution”. He portrayed his new political party as “neither left nor right” and appeared to be proposing to completely revamp the nation according to imagined common values and progressive ideals. The book was even subtitled “reconciling France”, and included chapters with grandiose titles such as “the great transformation”. He went on to name his party “La République En Marche!” (The Republic on the Move!), again pushing progressive ideals. The name, often shortened to “En Marche”, also matched the initials of the future president’s name (EM). The language was revolutionary, progressive — and narcissistic.

Terms of endearment?

Language is an important part of political manoeuvring — particularly in an age of populism, in which emotive phrasing is being used to potent effect.

French politicians repeatedly use the notion of “republican values” to support their policies. Indeed, Macron’s own party claimed to stand for “the Republic”. The mainstream right party is called “Les Républicains”, and its candidate for the 2017 presidentials, François Fillon, accused far-right leader Marine Le Pen of going against republican values.

But Macron has taken a strikingly novel approach in his language use by appealing to both the 1789 French Revolution and the monarchy it removed. He seems at once to be playing the revolutionary and the king. Given the extensive and intense struggle between the “old regime” (monarchy) and the Republic pursued by revolutionaries, Macron’s decision to use both is paradoxical at best. At worst, he is aligning himself with a form of power that France fought very hard to remove.

Macron’s inauguration speech was littered with examples that reference this decisive period. His “salut républicain” (republican greeting) offered to Marine Le Pen could be seen as a dig at the almost monarchistic family dynasty leading the far right party. He spoke of the “citoyens” (citizens) and “le peuple” (the people) — terms that gained their modern nuance in the revolution. At the same time, he made sure to link himself to the people through the constant use of “nous” (we). Despite this, he claimed that with his election, “une nouvelle page de notre longue histoire s’ouvre ce soir” (a new page in our long history has been turned this evening), hinting at a radically new type of president (perhaps straddling revolutionary and monarch), and went on to discuss “retrouver l’esprit de conquête qui dit mieux que tout le génie français” (rediscover the spirit of conquest that expresses best of all the French spirit), which harks back to the building of the French colonial empire.

Macron’s choice to align with the 1789 revolution was judicious. The Revolution led to the creation of modern political ideology — indeed, many of the political concepts we talk about today came out of this period. The idea of being politically “left” or “right”, for example, refers back to the seating arrangements in the French parliament of the time, where liberal deputies sat to the left, and nobility to the right of the parliamentary president.

The status of the French Revolution as the country’s most decisive moment of change, combined with its creation of the modern democratic state, explains why so many political parties are keen, and able, to link their rhetoric to the achievements of 1789. Macron may have set his angle as outside of traditional political divides, but by invoking “revolution” he was able to inspire identification with his language across the political spectrum.

His choice seems to have paid off, given his subsequent election, but may not end up being worth the cost. Recent events seem to imply that through this language, Macron had sown the seeds of his demise into his very rise to power. He was elected on the back of his cry for revolution; in doing so he has reminded the people to expect results, or else to revolt.

A monarchical turn

Since his presidency Macron has had two major near misses with revolutionary undertones.

First he attempted to reform education by making universities selective. To explain the reforms he used the term “bienveillance, liberté, responsabilité” (kindness, freedom, responsibility). This was a play on the famous Revolutionary term “liberté, égalité, fraternité”. In an interesting linguistic twist, equality (égalité) was removed from the equation. France, unlike its neighbours, has always rejected selectivity in higher education on the grounds of equality, and with it, a sense of responsibility of the state in the education of its citizens. By introducing the word “responsibility” into the mantra of his reform, Macron subtly injected a sense of duty into the phrase, and with it, an assertion of his authority to perform it, in his way.

The suggested reforms were unpopular and were met with protests. Demonstrations were particularly fiery around the 50th anniversary of the May ‘68 revolts, when students launched their own revolution of sorts against the government of Charles de Gaulle. The French, too, chose to echo revolution of a different sort — the most famous one in French pedagogical history.

Macron’s other difficult moment came when he tried to raise the TIPCE tax, a state tax on energy products. This came at a time of rising fuel prices and increasingly untenable cost of living. In response, the gilets jaunes protest movement was launched – so named because of the yellow vest that became its symbol. Since French drivers are required to have this item in their car, they automatically possess this uniform of revolution. The movement spans the political spectrum, and has come to take on as many issues as it has members. Macron went on to revoke the tax hike but by that point it was too late. He had unleashed a protest group that went beyond political divisions. Through this he seems to have succeeded in bringing together the left and the right, if only by placing himself as a common enemy.

In response to this uprising, Macron launched his “grand débat national” (great national debate), through live events, online and written submissions. Voters were invited to town hall meetings to air their concerns, in which Macron enthusiastically participated. Here he continued his role of “revolutionary” through his air of being “one of the people”. In an interesting twist, though, he asked citizens to submit “cahiers de doléances” (lists of grievances) for his consideration. This move imitated the vocabulary of the pre-Revolutionary era, as the last time the strategy of the “cahiers de doléances” were used was by the king of France just before the Revolution. Both of these channels gave a sense of empowerment to the people, in reminding them of their greatest success against power. But it also marked a shift in the role and persona that Macron projects to his electorate.

Macron employs manipulative language in his political discourse, but he does so at great risk. The ultimate result of the 18th-century cahiers de doléances was the overthrow of the then ruling order – and the decapitation of the King. With the gilets jaunes entering into the European debate by running for parliamentary seats, and despite surprisingly stable ratings, Macron’s reign may be at stake. Does this shift in tone from revolutionary to monarchy show that power has gone to his head?

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