Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Populism of the Elite

France's elites are proud. They'd never stoop, as John Kerry did, to donning a hunting jacket and shouldering a shotgun to prove he was a real man and not just a windsurfer (or antiwar war hero). They'd never demean themselves, as Hillary Clinton did, by aping Bernie Sanders. When challenged by populisms of the right and left, the French elite chose to fight fire with fire: they mounted a populism of the elite.

The concept is less oxymoronic than it sounds. You cast about among the best and the brightest. You find a brilliant and handsome young man, le gendre idéal, as the French like to say. You portray him as the prodigy he is: pianist, philosopher, footballer, banker, énarque, tennisman manqué, cool, affable, confident to a fault. You equip him with a narrative to counter that of the scowling populisms that threatened--and still threaten--to bring down the Republic: like them, he, too, claims to represent the good People, but his good people are optimistic, forward-looking, striving, upwardly mobile, ambitious. Leave "globalism's losers," les laissés-pour-compte, for the others. Emphasize his qualities as a "uniter, not a divider": et de droite et de gauche, he has forgotten those bygone, shopworn distinctions of the old world and keeps his eyes resolutely fixed on the new.

You have him say no more about what he is for than they do. Concentrate, as they do, on what he is against. They are against the system, the banks, globalization, capitalism. He is against pessimism, passéisme, and passivity. He is for dynamism, le roman de l'énergie nationale, as Barrès once put it.

And above all do not misrepresent what you will do in office. This was Hollande's mistake. There is an elite consensus on What Is to Be Done. Do not deny this, as Hollande did, but do not describe it, either, because it will only make a lot of people unhappy. Once elected, make it clear that you truly believe in this consensus, that it was not merely a myth toward which you gestured to get elected. Nominate as your prime minister another true believer, another prodigy like yourself, another énarque who has proved that he can thrive in both the private sector and the public, who gets on with everyone, but whose steel fist (he is a boxer, after all) is evident beneath the velvet glove. Welcome the cheers that emanate from the others like yourself, all of whom are eager to join you now that you have won, who admire your audacity even as they nurse an undeniable envy that you were the Chosen One each of them had hoped to be.

And then hope beyond hope that it all works, somehow, because in your heart of hearts you know that bold experiments often go wrong. You are not really as confident as you appear. Your wife trained you while still quite young to be a good actor. In your private moments, and precisely because you are the prodigy you've been made out to be, you know that you're walking a tightrope, and that the moment you show signs of losing your balance the slings and arrows will start flying from below, aiming to knock you off. Et voilà, there you are, eighth president of the Republic. You can't quite believe it, mais en même temps, as everyone is now mocking you for saying, you knew all along that you would win. You just had that feeling--as all great gamblers do. Sometimes the odds catch up with them, of course, but for all your training in the arts of calculation, you've never really been a calculator. You've always trusted your instincts, no matter how unconventional, no matter what disapproval they aroused. Your presidency will be a classic contest of virtù contra fortuna. And we in the gallery will be grateful for what promises to be one of the better shows of recent times.


Tim said...

This reminds of Kevin Williamson's column in the National Review discussing the shift in the US Republican Party from being the party of Alex P Keaton to that of Joe the Plumber and Sarah Palin. The more I think of it Macron is a French Alex P Keaton.



"I was a Republican for about ten minutes in the 1980s, back when the GOP was the party of winners. On this point, everyone agreed: The Democrats insisted that the Republicans were the party of the wealthy, the elite, those who had “won life’s lottery,” the party of management over labor, the party of the establishment over the marginalized. We Republicans didn’t disagree, exactly: We thought we were the party of Alex P. Keaton. We were the party not only of the well-off and comfortable but also of those who aspired to be well-off and comfortable — especially those who were most confident we could and would achieve this. We enjoyed watching Nancy Reagan in her Oscar de la Renta gowns shooing Jimmy Carter and his sad little cardigans out of the White House."

This last line reminds of Emmanuel and Bridgette shooing the Jimmy Carteresque Hollande out of the Elysee.

dairy queen said...

I've been saying for over a year that Macron is a Stendhal character de part en part, so completely agree on the better show point, just ... those stories tend not to end well. Here's to hoping he's more Fabrice on the battlefield of Waterloo and less Julien under the protection of Pirard navigating the pitfalls of the seminary.

Robinson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robinson said...

I certainly disagree that France's elites would not "demean themselves, as Clinton did, by aping Bernie Sanders." The clique of elites who have run the PS since Mitterrand have nearly all adopted the strategy of running on the far left and governing from the centre. Hollande (who because he is an apparatchik, not a prodigy represents the elite even better than Macron) was only the most pathetic example. I certainly give Macron credit for abandoning that tired ruse and running as exactly what he is.

I don't particularly like what he is, however. He is the Parisian consensus made flesh; not the promised renewal of French politics but a rebranding of some rather old ideas: the elite consensus on What Is to Be Done that Art describes. Macron does not represent a renewal but a sort of re-branding of this consensus. He reminds me of Albert Rivera, a slick yuppie who has tried to found a centrist party for wealthy young people in Spain. Macron seems more substantial than Rivera, and he has already gotten much farther. If we must submit to Jacques Attali's notion of what is to be done, I think that a figure like Bayrou (or better still, a French equivalent of Merkel) would do a better job of selling it than somebody like Macron. Somebody older, less rich, less camera-ready, less ostentatiously brilliant. Perhaps most importantly, somebody who had not made a pile of money working at a bank. He has to sell his ideas even to people who do not aspire to found startups, after all. Still, I've predicted Macron's collapse before and been wrong.

Art: I admit that I don't understand the depth of your antipathy to Sanders. I know that you live in New England, so you may have memories of his wild youth. But I think that you may be looking at him through French eyes: Sanders' program was not nearly as irresponsible or unpopular as Mélenchon's. Perhaps he was unelectable: Americans hate taxes, so Sanders' (immense) popularity might have faded under Republican attack. Still: do you really think that Hillary Clinton demeaned herself by "aping" him? Do you think that *her* final platform was somehow irresponsibly left-wing? Or that she lost to Trump because she had tacked too far to the left? I really can't agree with that.

FrédéricLN said...

@Art : this is a wonderful blog post (but the reference to "aping Sanders", that I did not grasp in full, but I live on the other side of the Atlantic ocean).

I did not know the words of Barrès, "le roman de l'énergie nationale", this is wonderfully relevant.

The (BTW fully irrelevant) "elite consensus on What Is to Be Done": absolutely right. A consensus including a kind of shame: the people who share it (at least those I know) would not dare describe their thoughts to anyone not living in "les deux arrondissements de Paris qui partagent le consensus néo-libéral" (according to Mathias Fekl). In my own opinion, this consensus is based on "mauvaise foi" in the sense of Sartre. At the end it means "as the times get darker, we will save our own privileges and let you, the 99%, in the dark, may some providential other State save you souls".

A sure sign of this: the reference to what works (and should justify the consensus) is limited to "les pays du Nord de l'Europe", actually meaning UK and the USA (!). I hardly read any explanation of the reasons for this very narrow scope, or the reasons to believe solutions implemented in the UK and the USA might be the most transferrable to France. And as far as I saw, the political side of the elite (the énarques, typically), have a very limited knowledge of UK or US policies. At the end, the content of the consensus on What Is To Be Done, i.e. the list of What Is To Be Changed, is extremely short. (Cut taxes for the "middle-class", reduce taxes on the profits of companies, reduce pensions, reduce allowances for people fired excepted executives, increase working hours, and well, is there much more than this?). It remembers me about the Euston manifesto: "we are on the left, but not THAT left! what we mean by PROGRESS is, er, we will start thinking about that".

Ooops, the was a spike of bitterness in my comment when we should share hope. After all, they are young, they do not want to waste their all life, the do have a brain and guts, they are knowledgeable, they can do the job.

Yet something is missing — it's the debate. It is democracy as Sen describes it. The debate is a foundry of relevant change. According to Jean Lassalle, debate stopped in Europe when the Berlin Wall fell. It was not the end of history, but it undermined the legitimacy of discontent, of disagreement. A cloud of gluing consensus fell on our intelligentsia, our media, our elite. No debate, no facts. No debate, no path for a better future. No debate, wars last forever, and financial spin over our economy, and multiple bodies at all stages, letting elected representatives under scrutiny for the show only. The only counter-measure ordinary people found so far is irony and forwarding fake news. Must the show go on?

Anonymous said...

'countries in northern Europe ' actually mean Sweden and Norway.
There'll be a need for a strong 'government left' and a strong 'government right' in addition to LREM because at some point, probably by next year, French people will tire of Emmanuel Macron 's "en meme temps". They may do so even if he succeeds, more certainly if he doesn't. I wish him good luck and I really hope he can keep his promise that no one will feel like voting for the extremes.
Nevertheless I believe that PS officials who think EnMarche is going to be a PS-bis are badly mistaken. The former UDF people joining LR should be okay in that ideological ensemble.
As for now, any prognostics, beside Le Drian still at Defense?

Massilian said...

That's a brilliant post ! Facts and tone. I agree with you, this will be a great political show, the "grand spectacle" which captivates the audiences,the show that Sarkozy dreamed of and failed to put together. Emmanuel le Kid will try to save Europe and put France on top. I loved Der Spiegal headline with the play on word "Teurer Freund" (Costly friend) and the subtitle : Macron saves Europe, Germany pays.

Anonymous said...


Yes, the show must go on. That is called politics. That is called history. That is called common sense, a quality lacking on the far left (Mélenchon) and the far right.

Macron IMO is a sincere liberal, a social liberal in the philosophical tradition of Paul Ricoeur or John Rawls or Raymond Aron, someone who believes that a liberal economic order, in which some inevitably outperform others, is the only way of achieving " social justice", i.e. a political order that benefits the "less well off" through redistribution.

There have not been many French politicians in that mould in the post war period, so I must disagree with Arthur when he somewhat snidely identifies Macron as the wunderkind of the technocratic, statist French élite (énarques) who have never shown much concern for creating the conditions of economic growth but have been very good at bankrupting the state...

Anonymous said...

Great post ! As a French person, I find that I need to reach to media in english to at least read a critical analysis
of the Macron.

bert said...

The Macron love-in has been reported in the UK alongside anniversary reminiscences of Blair's New Labour landslide exactly twenty years ago. The parallels are uncanny.

Wordsworth on 1789:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!—Oh! times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!
When Reason seemed the most to assert her rights,
When most intent on making of herself
A prime Enchantress—to assist the work
Which then was going forward in her name!

But have I got the wrong showoff literary reference, Frédéric? Am I Marley's Ghost instead?

FrédéricLN said...

@bert : you beat me by so many points.

@Anonymous May 17, 2017 at 4:26 AM
"'countries in northern Europe ' actually mean Sweden and Norway."

I might have been more explicit ;-) Yes, that is what "northern Europe" is supposed to mean (plus Finland, Denmark, and from times to times Germany or the Netherlands).

But when you look what policy agenda the French elite promotes under the reference to "northern Europe", these are actually policies carried out in the US or in UK (either by Thatcher, Blair, Brown or Cameron). And who, among French politicians, and beyond Eva Joly, ever lived in Norway or Sweden?

Anonymous said...

Brilliant. Always appreciate your blog. Well said.

brent said...

The exquisite cynicism of this post is a true match for the occasion. Politics as show, as a game of charades meant to distract some portion of the electorate while the elites enlarge their own interests, en avant comme avant. Not even the illusion of a policy initiative to sully this immaculate vision, just "hope it all works": i.e. hope the resentment of the ever-expanding band of "global losers" doesn't get out of hand over the next 5 years, and then ... hope for a golden parachute into a successful country like China.

An alternative approach would be to question the wisdom of carrying on as before--Hollande bis with a pretty face--and look for structural changes, massive ones, that could actually engage the still-vital social forces in a country as resourceful as France. But that would be a thankless labor--look how they laughed at Hamon and Piketty and even worse, Mélenchon, for thinking real change was both possible and necessary. No--better to make oneself comfortable in the gallery, admire the beauty of this prodigious new talent, cheer for him, have a laugh or two at his 'reforms' ... and hope it all stays afloat for a little while longer until the revenge of the excluded sets in for real. Then flee--but not to the UK or the US, where it already has.

bert said...

"'countries in northern Europe ' actually mean Sweden and Norway"

To American readers, 90's era 'welfare reform' likely means benefit cuts and a cynical Dick Morris triangulation strategy. In Britain though there was a bit more to it than that, in part because the British. It was very market-focussed, with all the ”hand-up not a handout” rhetoric you'd expect from a supply-side approach. But it wasn't the heartless liberalism of French stereotype. There was a lot of emphasis on retraining, and giving people a meaningful stake in a changing labour market. It was explicitly presented as 'Scandinavian' model.

The results were mixed, at best. If it had worked, you might imagine that downscale Leave voters wouldn't have turned against free movement in quite the way they did.

Anyway, Macron looks set to give it another go.

bert said...

Fat finger prematurely posting that last comment, sorry.

It should say:
in part because the British give majority governments a lot of leeway, by comparison with divided government under the US separation of powers.

FrédéricLN said...

@ bert: I take your points!

Anyway it is all about the triangle "the State, the individual, the firm". The power of workers Unions (or of any self-organized citizens groups) is very weak in the UK, as it is in France outside "le secteur public", civil servants; weaker, I guess, that in the United States. Which makes the big difference with "le Nord de l'Europe", from Germany to Scandinavian states. I write it fast and that is approximative, but to make it short: the reference to "le Nord de l'Europe" in French political debate never suggests that Unions should be empowered, but rather, that they should loose their "conservative" battles.