Macron’s Political Philosophy Ebbs as Reelection Approaches

If French President Emmanuel Macron is as confident about reelection in April 2022 as he often appears to be, it is because he has successfully used the pandemic to portray himself as a leader guiding his nation through crisis. The Macron who emerged in response to COVID-19, however, often hardly seems to resemble the man who was elected in 2017. The former Rothschild banker and business-friendly finance minister under former French President François Hollande now seems to have forgotten his earlier controversial commitments to remake France’s labor market, pension system, and administrative apparatus. He has largely suspended the budgetary concerns and neoliberal reforms that have been a hallmark of his political identity. He is now much more likely to emphasize the need for a new industrial policy so France’s essential medical supplies do not depend on supply chains stretching around the world.

COVID-19 has not been the only domestic threat Macron has redefined his presidency with. Since the murder of schoolteacher Samuel Paty in October 2020, he has also taken a much harder line—in speech and, to some extent, in practice—toward radical Islamist networks. His minister of the interior, Gérald Darmanin, shocked public opinion during a debate with French politician Marine Le Pen in February, when he accused the head of the National Rally party of being insufficiently alert to the threat posed by Islamist extremism. After Macron was elected in 2017 from the ashes of the Socialist Party as an innovative economic liberal appealing to a broad center, Macron now allows his ministers to position themselves to the right of Le Pen. Both as a cause and consequence of this redirection, his electorate has shifted toward conservative voters, giving him the voting base less of a free-thinking former socialist than of a classic center-right candidate.

It is fair to wonder, as some commentators have, what the Macron of 2021—a tough-talking defender of the nation who leans right and flouts neoliberal economic wisdom—has in common with the Macron of 2017, who was hailed by the anglophone press as liberalism’s savior in the face of Western populist surges. Is there such a thing as a Macronism around which these shifts in strategy cohere?

From the beginning of his first presidential campaign, Macron has been a politician capable of disorienting changes in discursive strategy. These have been, however, consistently in the service of a political vision characterized, precisely, by the power of discourse. Informed by (often misunderstood) connections to his intellectual mentor, philosopher Paul Ricœur, and political predecessor, center-left Prime Minister Michel Rocard, Macron has elaborated an understanding of politics that casts the state—and himself at its head—in a hermeneutic role, offering French citizens explanations and interpretations to accommodate them to economic globalization’s unchangeable realities. It is this Macronism, inherited from Ricœur and Rocard, that now faces not only the challenge of the next campaign but a crisis that cannot be managed through such discursive means.

A portrait of French philosopher Paul Ricoeur

A portrait of French philosopher Paul Ricœur in Paris in December 1991. Louis MONIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Making sense of Macron means understanding his relationship to Ricœur, one of France’s most celebrated contemporary philosophers until his death in 2005. For two years, the young Macron was Ricœur’s editorial assistant as the thinker worked on his last major book, Memory, History, Forgetting. Since then, Macron has cited Ricœur as a critical influence on his political thought, a claim that has been repeated in the French and international press and taken up by journalists as well as numerous philosophers in a variety of books and articles. Other scholars have contested claims of Ricœur’s influence on Macron, arguing, convincingly, that most of these works are basically superficial hagiographies by pro-Macron intellectuals.

Yet beyond the media chatter, there are real connections between Ricœur’s thinking and some of the otherwise inexplicable elements of Macron’s politics. For example, Macron has defended the concept of ideology, a position that might seem strange for a centrist seeking to break with right and left conventions. It could have been possible for Macron to present himself to the French public as a post-ideological, empirically minded expert in financial affairs. But, as he put it in a 2015 interview, he is someone who “believes in political ideology.” The latter, he continued, “sheds light on reality by giving it meaning.”

Macron would not have been unjustified in crediting Ricœur for his understanding of ideology. In a 1975 lecture series, published in 1986 as Lectures on Ideology and Utopia, Ricœur offered a critical defense of ideology, which he conceived as a collective meaning-making process that maintains communities. He argued “what is wholesome in ideology” is its capacity to hold together a group through a shared understanding of the world. Critically, for Ricœur as well as Macron, ideology is neither a rational schema to be applied nor an illusion to be overcome. It’s an interpretive phenomenon that confers a supplementary sense of meaningfulness on the social order.

Ricœur and Macron attribute a similar role to the concept of political reconciliation, imagined as a means of remembering the past together through official enactments of commemoration and pardon, and, by doing so, achieving civic cohesion. Although Macron’s 2017 campaign book, Revolution, might have seemed to be a list of neoliberal economic reforms expressed with particular exuberance, it was in fact an effort to combine his economic program with Ricœur’s politics of memory. Its subtitle, “Reconciling France,” spoke to an ambition derived from the work of Ricœur’s final philosophical period—as expressed in Memory, History, Forgetting, the book a young Macron helped edit.

In 2017, Macron warned that France, divided by religion and class, “runs the risk of civil war” fueled by resentment against those who have benefitted from economic globalization, while the rest of the country, from immigrant ghettoes to the suburban and rural periphery, have stagnated since the 1980s in chronic unemployment. Against this risk, he called for three types of strategies: economic, securitarian, and symbolic. He demanded a greater openness to markets and labor flexibility to create jobs, the “reconquest” of neighborhoods controlled by radical Islamist networks, and a reaffirmation of France’s republican values that would pass through an avowal of “that which has not been praiseworthy” in France’s history, such as slavery, colonialism, and collaboration in the Holocaust.

This desire for “reconciliation” through political memory led Macron during his 2017 campaign to offer apologies to the people of Algeria for colonialism, a “crime against humanity,” and to opponents of gay marriage, whom Macron judged to have been “humiliated.” (Macron has recently performed yet another bit of discursive theater by claiming Algeria is only a nation because of French colonialism.) These idiosyncratic appeals to the left and right generated controversy and confusion but also reflected an understanding of politics as a process of smoothing over different interpretations of the past by recognizing grievances and bringing resentments into public discourse—a vision that owed much to Ricœur’s Memory, History, Forgetting.

That book was a theoretical culmination of debates about political memory raging in France, as groups like the former pieds-noirs colonists of French Algeria and members of the African diaspora sought to put their rival narratives of historical trauma in school textbooks and public memorials, modeling the official memorialization of the Holocaust. In Memory, History, Forgetting, Ricœur conceives statecraft in symbolic terms: as a matter of managing the commemoration of past injustices; reconciling competing historical narratives; and achieving, through a kind of state-supervised process of national group therapy, reconciliation.

Ricœur supplied Macron with key concepts for politics organized around the search for meaning, reconciliation, and other sorts of discursively generated legitimation. His most important influence on Macron, however, was not direct but consisted of his having participated in the transformation of French socialism—which he and Macron both belonged to and left—during the last decades of the 20th century.

People toss an effigy of French President Emmanuel Macron during an anti-government demonstration

People toss an effigy of French President Emmanuel Macron during an anti-government demonstration called by the gilets jaunes movement in Nice, France, on Jan. 12, 2019. VALERY HACHE/AFP via Getty Images

Ricœur embodied the transformation of the postwar French left that made the rise of Macron possible. Prior to 1945, the young Ricœur was a Protestant socialist not immune to authoritarianism’s temptation, which included both a qualified admiration for the Nazi regime in Germany and early support for the Vichy government in France. After the war, however, his politics coalesced around a democratic and liberal Christian socialism grounded in the personalist philosophy of French theologian Emmanuel Mounier.

During the postwar decades, Ricœur’s political ambition was to square his conception of Christian humanism, centered on individual dignity, with Marxist economics and socialist regimes. These included the People’s Republic of China, for which Ricœur offered cautious praise for in a series of articles from 1956, after a visit to the country the previous year. He noted, however, that the Chinese lacked essential political freedoms, a concern he raised to a higher theoretical level in an article analyzing the “paradox of politics.” The state, he argued, was supposed to liberate individuals from oppression and want but, as it acquired the means to do so, risked becoming a danger to them. Socialist control over modern economies—which Ricœur otherwise saw as a positive development—posed new risks for human freedom. To check them, Ricœur insisted political life be organized around a separation of powers, the free public exchange of ideas, and citizens’ democratic control over the state. He advocated for political liberalism as a means of restraining socialism’s authoritarian potential, even as he celebrated its apparent triumph over economic liberalism.

The Ricœur who thus wed human rights to socialist economics would seem to be almost the opposite of Macron—who, as finance minister under Hollande and as president, often appeared to promote economic liberalism through illiberal political means. His high-handed and violent response to the gilets jaunes protests against proposed fuel tax hikes appears to much of the French left as a case of authoritarian economic liberalism. Although Macron now seems to put his authoritarian tendencies in the service of public health and counterterrorist security measures (denounced by the far right and the progressive anglophone press, respectively) rather than neoliberal reform, his presidency is a far cry from Ricœur’s vision of a state that controlled the economy and was, in turn, controlled by its citizens.

Paul Ricœur in his office at the Paris Nanterre University in 1969.

French philosopher Paul Ricœur stands in his office at the Paris Nanterre University in 1969. Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Ricœur, however, underwent a gradual but powerful transformation in his political thinking after the May 1968 student revolts. An advocate of French university reform, Ricœur was put in charge of what was perhaps the epicenter of student radicalism: the Paris Nanterre University. His brief tenure was marked by widely publicized humiliation when a student mob emptied a garbage can over his head. Shortly before the incident, Ricœur had begun an article, “Reform and Revolution in the University,” with an invocation of Maoist China, celebrating that, as he saw it, “the West has now entered into a cultural revolution … borrowing from that of China.” Now he was a victim of methods akin to those used by the Chinese Red Guards.

As Macron noted in the 2015 interview when he acknowledged Ricœur as his mentor, Ricœur’s later philosophy—as Macron encountered it at the end of the 20th century—emerged in response to the “deconstruction of authority,” not least his own, by the radicals of 1968. This attempt to find “another path” lead Ricœur definitively out of Marxism (even a Marxism qualified by liberalism, humanism, and Christianity). Resigning from his position at Nanterre, Ricœur also withdrew from political life and took teaching positions in Belgium and then the University of Chicago that allowed him to distance himself from France. When he returned to political life in the 1980s, it was with a new set of references derived from his American context: philosophers John Rawls, Michael Walzer, and Hannah Arendt. Marx and Mao had disappeared.

Over the course of the 1970s, Ricœur also gained a new appreciation for economic liberalism, founded on a sense it had proved itself historically irresistible—or, perhaps, that aspiring to socialism carries dangers that could not be contained by political liberalism alone. Although Ricœur continued to claim that utopian thinking was critical to politics (a theme of Lectures on Ideology and Utopia), the very possibility of an orientation toward the future, utopian or otherwise, was increasingly replaced in his thought with a backward gaze. It was substituted by new interests in the politics of memory, locating the privileged domain of state action not in the economic sphere but in the symbolic. The state, no longer imagined to control the economy, was charged above all with hermeneutic and therapeutic operations.

Michel Rocard (center) attends a demonstration against antisemitism in Paris in 1980.

Michel Rocard (center) attends a demonstration against antisemitism in Paris on Oct. 8, 1980, after the bombing of the Copernic synagogue, which killed four people and injured many others. Michel BARET/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

For Ricœur and French political life more broadly, this shift in horizons was inseparable from Rocard’s political career. From 1960 to 1974, Rocard, outside the context of the major parties, was a proponent of what he and his allies called the “Second Left.” Against the fusion of Marxism and Jacobinism that long dominated French socialism, they ranged an ideological assemblage given coherence by its compatibility with economic liberalism. Rocard’s contributions to the Second Left were an emphasis on regionalism (in his 1966 book, Decolonize the Provinces) and worker self-management (autogestion), originally inspired by the Yugoslav model but increasingly over the course of the 1970s shifting to a discourse that represented workers as entrepreneurs.

After 1974, Rocard joined the Socialist Party, seeking to change it from the inside. For nearly a decade, this seemed to be a losing struggle. The party’s orthodox Jacobin-Marxist adherents, hopeful of taking national power, envisioned a program to put the state in control of the French economy. Jean-Pierre Chevènement, one of the chief exponents of this tendency, condemned Rocard for what he saw as “hatred of the state.” He warned that by promoting regions at the expense of the central government and seeking autonomy for workers in their specific job sites rather than their collective power as exercised through national unions, Rocard risked depriving any future socialist government of the necessary instruments to control the economy.

François Mitterrand, the party’s head, aligned himself with Chevènement, attacking Rocard as a moderate who would ruin the socialists’ electoral strategy of allying with the still-powerful communists. Mitterrand defeated Rocard’s attempt to replace him as president of the party, and his victorious campaign for president of France in 1981 was run on classic socialist themes, with little influence from the Second Left. Mitterrand’s ambitious nationalization program was to put France’s industry and banks at the service of the state, which would set them to work reducing unemployment and eventually bringing about social democracy.

The global context for such a strategy was unfavorable. As the newly elected Socialist Party government began its nationalizations, governments throughout the West, led by then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan, promoted neoliberal reforms to shrink the state’s economic role in response to the oil shocks, slow growth, and inflation of the 1970s. Mitterrand, however, was committed to defying this new ideological consensus and, inconsistently, maintaining France’s balance of payments, the goodwill of European banks, and a reasonable rate of inflation—all of which were threatened by his government’s measures. By 1983, he reversed course in a “pivot to rigor,” initiating a series of de-nationalizations, limiting government spending, and accepting high unemployment and submission to the goodwill of France’s creditors as the price of solvency.

Bereft of any larger national economic agenda, the socialists realized they could differentiate themselves from the right by playing on themes like regionalism. Rocard now appeared indispensable. He ascended, much to Mitterrand’s chagrin, to the prime minister’s office, which he held from 1988 to 1991. One of his first acts in power was to oppose a wave of public sector strikes, a move he followed with repeated efforts to convince the left and the broader French public that, as he put it in 1990, nothing more radical could be expected from the socialists than a “tempered capitalism.”

Like Macron after him, Rocard appeared in his heyday to be a centrist trailblazer who combined economic liberalism with self-styled radical thinking that blurred the boundaries between right and left. Macron has cited Rocard as often as he’s called Ricœur a key figure in his political development. He described himself as an heir to Rocard during his 2017 presidential campaign and wrote a laudatory preface to a biography of Rocard. The similarities between Rocard and Macron have been remarked on, in a favorable light, by journalists and at least one former member of Rocard’s government. From the left, in a critical vein, scholars Bruno Amable and Stefano Palombarini in The Last Neoliberal: Macron and the Origins of France’s Political Crisis describe Rocard as one of the most important predecessors of Macron’s style of politics. This analysis is echoed from the far right by Éric Zemmour, who is now running an independent campaign for the presidency.

Then-presidential candidate Macron talks to journalists as he arrives to pay respect at the site of a terror attack in Berlin in 2017.

Then-presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron talks to journalists as he arrives to pay respect at the site of a terror attack in Berlin on Jan. 10, 2017. TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP via Getty Images

Although comparisons of Macron and Rocard are as commonplace in French political commentary as claims about Macron’s debts to Ricœur, the two lines of thought rarely cross. Macron’s 2017 campaign, however, can be seen as a fusion of his two mentors, borrowing its economic horizon from Rocard and its philosophical vocabulary from Ricœur. The precedent for such a conjuncture was already established by Ricœur and Rocard themselves—who, during Rocard’s time as prime minister, collaborated on a book titled The Philosopher and the Politician. Although it was never completed, the fruits of their collaboration appeared in a dialogue between the two published in 1991.

The conversation’s explicit aim was how to resist what Rocard called the “extension of the logic of the market to all areas of social and economic life.” Although this might sound like traditional socialism, it was premised on the belief that liberalism’s triumph in the economic sphere was insurmountable. The task of politics was not to master the economy but to shelter certain zones, such as education and health care, from the otherwise dominant logics of commodity and competition. This task, Ricœur insisted, could not be accomplished through the “archaic” French political culture founded on “conflict” (like class conflict) but by mobilizing historical traditions that bear values other than those of the capitalist market. By drawing on “the diversity of our cultural heritages,” Ricœur hoped to reanimate moral “convictions” that might set limits to economic liberalism.

At a moment when neoliberalism appeared triumphant, Ricœur can be credited with holding on to certain fragments of cautionary political wisdom from the traditional left and right. He retained a sense of the creative, positive capacity of state action to shape citizens’ self-understandings, a sense that culture is downstream from politics. Although his emphasis on memory, identity, and interpretations of history can be seen as participating in Western political life’s shift from substantive, material questions to “culture wars,” Ricœur centered the state’s role rather than place his hopes—as many thinkers of the era did—in a vague, apolitical notion of civil society, aspiring to building a new, more inclusive national consensus rather than stoke polemic attacks.

Ricœur’s understanding of politics proved useful not only for justifying the French state as a space for the negotiation of narratives, but also for the narrative displacement of the national state by the European Union. From this mature thought, the EU could appear not only as an engine of economic liberalism but as a new kind of political institution containing and crystallizing Europe’s diverse civilizational heritage. Such a vision has consistently appealed to the French political mainstream, which from Mitterrand to Macron has sought to deepen France’s influence in the EU and give the latter an aura of moral legitimacy.

Ricœur’s political philosophy is attempting to give moral and cultural legitimacy to contemporary capitalism while proposing, through concepts of conviction, reconciliation, and ideology to retain some minimal sense of social cohesion and nonmarket values. In Rocard’s time as prime minister and during Macron’s 2017 campaign, this philosophy had avatars who gave it the appearance of novelty by transgressing outdated worldviews that divided Western politics between right and left. But Macron’s campaign for reelection represents, perhaps, both its zenith and its exhaustion.

Macron marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe at the the statue of Gen. Charles de Gaulle in Paris in 2020.

French President Emmanuel Macron marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe at the the statue of French Gen. Charles de Gaulle in Paris on May 8, 2020. FRANCOIS MORI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

In his book Revolution, Macron imagined, in terms inherited from Ricœur and Rocard, a state cast largely as the manager of public life interpretations. Toward the market, the state had to show itself increasingly flexible, doing away with “rigid rules” that regulate labor and welfare provisions, adapting “our … inefficient social model” to the demands of capitalist globalization. While acceding to these imperatives, the state, however, proved to be “inflexible” against the enemies of its values (namely, Islamist extremists) and able to reassure citizens it still exercised sovereignty over its territory. It would do so not by wresting back control over the economy (deregulation further weakened such control) but by explaining its economic and security policies in reassuring language: “Because explaining this is what permits society to accept it.”

Politics in the mode elaborated by Ricœur and Rocard and inherited by Macron in his 2017 campaign amounts to the production of discourse to clarify, legitimate, and set tentative limits to the state’s condition of insurmountable subservience to the globalizing market by providing explanations, stoking convictions, finding reconciliation, and offering ideology. In the past year, however, as the COVID-19 crisis gives new significance and visibility to state action, the intellectual matrix Macron’s 2017 campaign arose out of has threatened to collapse. French politics has seemed obliged to move beyond the therapeutic and hermeneutic assuagement of public anxieties to focus on the use of state power to tame an uncertain world.

It’s unlikely Ricœur can serve here as any sort of guide. In a 1988 article justifying his judgement that the national state could now do little more than somewhat attenuate and generate symbolic resistance to global capital’s demands, Ricœur argued the contemporary world was in a novel kind of crisis—not a political crisis, but a crisis of politics, that is, of the possibility of political action. The economic crisis that followed the oil shocks of the 1970s, he argued, was far more serious than the crisis of the 1930s. Although the latter could be met with state intervention in the form of expansive welfare policies and Keynesianism (or the totalitarian projects of the Nazi and Soviet states), the crisis of the 1970s—which Ricœur insisted was not over—called into question the very notion of the state’s sovereignty over the economic sphere.

Ricœur’s analysis may have appeared justified as “real socialism” came to an end. It was certainly a convenient picture of political action’s possibilities for a thinker who, in the aftermath of his 1968 humiliation, found a historical alibi to oppose any future radicalism—and for the social classes that disproportionately benefitted, and continue to benefit, from the French state’s shift to economic liberalism. But as France and the world are gripped by a crisis that doesn’t seem to require state action, his political philosophy seems to be in crisis.

To the extent that Macron’s response to the COVID-19 crisis represents merely a temporary suspension of his 2017 neoliberal reform platform, it does not yet signal a clear break with the philosophical and political line he inherited from Ricœur and Rocard. The latter included possibilities of cordoning off certain domains of society from capitalist imperatives and of unexpected shifts in political discourse. Macron’s authoritarian gestures, often seen to be a self-conscious appeal to former French President Charles de Gaulle’s historical model, and his government’s increasingly strident discourse against Islamist extremism and intersectional ideas imported from the United States are also compatible with a conservative iteration of Ricœur’s political philosophy, which argues defending Western tradition is the source of France’s convictions and memories.

A real rupture with Ricœur, Rocard, and Macronism would entail a commitment not so much to any particular policy as to a general outlook that understands the state’s role in terms that move beyond renegotiating citizens’ interpretations of their history and present identities through state-orchestrated pedagogical and therapeutic campaigns. Instead, politics would grant citizens the power to transform their material circumstances through collective action.

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