Macron Will Have to Do

As we approach the denouement of France’s two-stage presidential election, it becomes clear that the race has been a missed opportunity to consolidate opinion in France, and perhaps Europe, against the malevolent rule of Vladimir Putin.

This may not greatly trouble the conscience of Emmanuel Macron, whose bid for re-election has been an unusually arduous affair. But the blunder is a microcosm of the feeble leadership he has demonstrated since entering the Elysée Palace. Under the banner of “the radical center”—rather more centrist than radical, one might say—Macron has steadily been drowned out by a cacophony of extremists on the Left and the Right. His appeal to French voters has been faute de mieux. To justify himself, Macron points only to the wretchedness of the alternatives on offer.

In France, three politicians totalling around 40% of voting intentions have overtly backed Putin in the past: on the far left Melenchon, on the far right Zemmour and Le Pen (in the order of this incredible video, ht @benjaminhaddad). pic.twitter.com/pI3UqyvQbf— Lionel Page (@page_eco) March 11, 2022

This closing argument has some force, but with more than 50 percent of voters having backed extremist parties in the first round, it has been found wanting. In the face of the greatest security threat in Europe since the end of the Cold War, the French governing class has woefully failed to rise to the occasion. Seldom has a word been uttered in criticism of, let alone outrage against, the Russian despot and his continuing depredations in Ukraine. This is especially true of the lurid reactionaries that fill the opposition and harbor a conspicuous soft spot for global outlaws.

The worst outcome may yet be prevented by the defeat of the national socialist—if that’s the term I want—Marine Le Pen, but her proximity to power is now too close for comfort. At the head of National Rally (formerly National Front) that long hosted Nazi collaborators, there can be no doubt that, if elected, Le Pen would transform France at home and shed its influence abroad. Her program is one of unstinting chauvinism that would abort longstanding alliances and abandon Europe to the hard men in the Kremlin. In this, she is an ultra-nationalist echo of the socialist alternative that she narrowly bested in the first round.

Whatever cosmetic changes she has made to her party over the years, Le Pen remains in the tradition of Charles Maurras, the ideologist behind the Action Française movement. Founded in 1899 to defend a decidedly Old World conception of “true France,” Action Française was grounded more in blood-and-soil than in the principles of the Enlightenment. Claire Berlinski’s mordant observations have shed light on the roots of this reactionary creed. The main change to this antique political orientation, she writes, is that an old paranoid fear of Jews has been replaced by a new paranoid fear of Muslims. For this quarter of the French electorate, no threat to France surpasses what it views as a civilizational clash with Islam, and Russia, with its pugnacious brand of Orthodox Christianity, may even be a bulwark against liberalism run amok.

The fact that France’s leading nostalgic nationalist is ardently defending a capacious Russian sphere of influence in the midst of Putin’s savage invasion of Ukraine underscores the oddity of the modern character of French nationalism. A decent and competent Left might point out, as Macron has belatedly done, that France stands to gain exactly nothing from an “alliance” with Putin’s dictatorship proposed by the likes of Le Pen. “I admire Vladimir Putin,” she once told the Russian journal Kommersant, adding that Europe’s economic woes offered “an opportunity to turn our back to the US and turn toward Russia.” Despite her recent efforts to conceal this fondness for the Russian strongman, she has parroted Kremlin talking points about the “completely stupid” EU sanctions against Russia and insists there had been “no invasion” of Crimea, which had “always been Russian.” She even insulted Ukraine’s (freely elected) government as the product of “a coup d’état.”

This leaves the incumbent President Macron as the only plausible champion of French values and the Atlantic alliance in this contest. Admittedly, for the last five years, Macron has been a rather careless steward of the Fifth Republic’s foreign policy. He has taken an active interest in boosting the European Union, with the predictable consequence of subverting Western cohesion. Instead of preparing his country and his continent for an era of renewed geopolitical competition, he has indulged the fantasy of transcending NATO, which he accused of suffering “brain death.” Macron also went out of his way to endorse a grand bargain with Moscow that invited (and deserved) ridicule even before Russian airpower and artillery laid waste to Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities. The fact that NATO has belatedly come to the assistance of the Ukrainians—and that Finland and Sweden are now anxiously preparing to join the military alliance—reveals the howling failure of Macron’s vision.

At the beginning of his term, Macron addressed the annual conference of French Ambassadors. The kernel of his message in this diplomatic setting was that any past bias against Russia could no longer obtain. “I know,” the president acknowledged, “that many of you made your careers working on dossiers whose every aspect fostered a mistrust of Russia.” But that mistrust, he went on, owed to a “series of misunderstandings.” It was time to “rethink the fundamentals.” His goal was to “build a new architecture” with Russia, “based on trust and security in Europe.”

Russia responded to all this with galloping malevolence. It has funded far-Right extremist movements in Western democracies (including Le Pen’s party) and disinformation campaigns during American and European democratic elections, and engaged in incessant cyberattacks, poisonings, assassinations on Western soil, and military aggression in Ukraine and Syria. This campaign to reassert Russia’s traditional sphere of influence has reached its apex with the grim attempt to reclaim its old colony in Ukraine by force. This ill-fated endeavor, and the related growth of a fierce martial patriotism in Ukraine, should provide ample reason for even the most hardened cynic in the Quai d’Orsay to cease efforts at mollifying the Kremlin until it relinquishes its territorial claims.

Of course, it’s risible to encounter declarations of nationalism from Western clients of an odious Russian despotism. Le Pen is thus no answer to French problems, let alone civilizational crises. But it’s wearisome at this late date that the radical center has acquitted itself so poorly. It has failed to rally to the defense of Europe, either materially or psychologically. In his new book, Yascha Mounk points out that diverse modern democracies have failed to cohere around a cultural and civic patriotism. Bereft of what Orwell dubbed this “atavistic emotion,” they can neither appreciate nor emulate the kind of mortar of trust and intense collective solidarity electrifying Ukraine today. While Kantian Europeans take to the streets with peace signs, Ukrainians are convinced that their hearth and home is worth fighting for.

For years, Western leaders looked in vain to Germany, Europe’s largest economy, to supply the moral leadership of Europe, even of the free world. This was not merely wrongheaded; in view of Germany’s bitter historical experience and related belief in the primacy of soft power, it was delusional. Evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, this confidence in German leadership remains in fashion even after Russia’s war of conquest in Ukraine. This latest bout of aggression, it is said, has awakened Europe’s “sleeping giant” once and for all. But such a judgment remains premature.

After a decade and a half in power, Angela Merkel passes on the chancellorship of Germany today. She led Europe through difficult times with steadiness and bravery, and for four long years, she was the leader of the free world. Thank you, Angela. pic.twitter.com/TEOMAcNluW— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) December 8, 2021

In many ways, France was better suited to this role, but so far it has chosen not to play it. The blame for this rests squarely with the political center that Macron has long claimed and held with curiously little resistance. A lack of will not inadequate material conditions is hobbling France from wielding greater influence in Europe and beyond. What is stopping the renaissance of French vigor in world affairs—what Dean Acheson deemed early in the Cold War to be “irreplaceable in a world of free men”?

Consider energy policy. In the previous decade, with Russia bestriding its “near abroad” as a major power, Germany actually increased its energy dependency on the Russian state. Meanwhile, France has maintained its independence due to its heavy domestic production of nuclear energy. There is comparably little strain involved in France cutting off Russian imports. Indeed, France has announced a plan to build more than a dozen new nuclear reactors. So while green parties across the West remain in thrall to unattainable renewable fantasies, and Germany remains undecided about how quickly it can prudently disentangle itself from the Russian energy giant, the French demonstrate that clean energy need not come at the expense of sound moral and strategic calculations. Any French leader should make the case that Europe must break its dependence on Russia’s natural gas by the same means.

To his credit, President Macron has called attention to Russia’s enduring aggression in Ukraine, and pledged to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity. To this end, he has boosted the French military presence in Romania—another Black Sea neighbor that Moscow seeks to coerce and overawe. But important voices suggest that Czechia and Slovakia have seized the strategic initiative by moving rapidly to arm Ukraine and thus represent the EU’s new radical center, not the old powers of Europe.

It need not continue to be this way. It has long been de rigueur for French politicians to declare their allegiance to “republican values,” and the Russian aggression in Ukraine presents an unbeatable test of this commitment. Needless to say, it cannot be discharged if voters elect a politician whose core ideology violates the values of liberty, equality, and fraternity that France has long championed. But if the incumbent is returned to office, he will need to show what those values mean in deeds as well as words.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/04/24/macron-will-have-to-do/
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This is a pile of polysyllabic purple prose, mostly focused against le Pen’s past praise of Putin. Actually it has some good points, with respect to the pointlessness of Macron’s programme, and the purposelessness of NATO, except as a dagger directed to defend against the Russian dictatorship…

This ‘center’ is clearly a dead center.

It is hard to make the case that Macron understood much then or understands much now or has learned much along the way. And, as the writer says,

Indeed, it remains to be seen. Really, we still have not the least idea what the Western goal for thgis war is, except that there must be regime change in Russia, presumably so that our favorite oligarchs can displace the native oligarchs, that having been more or less the goal of Maidan in 2014. And if Macron is more ready to lead Europe in this forever war, which le Pen might be inclined to abandon, then the cause is clear. Macron est Necessaire!

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Dibs on the band name. We’ll just do Prince and Hendrix covers.

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with a flying purple people-eater, somewhere in the band. Probably playing a descant on its horn,

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The author seems to be mourning the death of the era of Francis Fukuyama. He fails to understand that populism, or as some have dubbed it ‘Global Trumpism’ is a phenomenon which is universal to the West, and has left its mark on almost every country in the West. It can appear on either the Left or the Right, has very real and justifiable root causes, even if these root causes can manifest in troubling ways. Simply put, whilst the top 20% or top 10% in most countries has benefitted from globalism, neoliberalism, trade and the free flow of labour, almost everyone else in Western countries has either remained steady or seen their living standards decline.

To be fair, the West has benefitted from cheaper and better goods and services, but some might see this as a high price to pay for unleashing Darwinian labour competition, employment which amounts to serfdom, or unprecedented levels of job insecurity and a lack of labour participation. What further complicates the issue is, whilst many (including myself) might find encountering new cultures and new ideas exciting, large segments of any population are psychologically prewired by socio-economics, family background and even genetics to feel uncomfortable around other cultures when numbers exceed certain limits (14% seems to be the threshold).

This is not something that is susceptible to experience or education, it is deeply wired into us by our childhood environment. It only really diminishes intergenerationally. In this light, we can see that multiculturalism without the imperative to integrate culturally, was a catastrophic disaster of cosmopolitans believing that everyone else must, or even could be like them. Thankfully in the West, the primary (but not exclusive) motivator of these deeply rooted ingroup preferences is cultural rather than racial, but it does mean policy-makers need to be more strident in their insistence on integration, even going so far as to design specific housing policies to prevent newly arrived citizens from clumping together into culturally distinct groups.

This may seem hard, until one considers that the evidence shows that greater integration leads to higher rates of social mobility and fuller participation in civic society, especially in the next generation. In particular, a failure to do so can result in exactly the type of alienation amongst the young, of being separate from the main society, which can lead to radicalisation, which in turn becomes fodder for the xenophobe, manifesting in downright outgroup hostility amongst a portion of the population. Ultimately, the more strident and culturally relativistic multiculturalism fails, because it inadvertently unleashes and amplifies the forces those who promote it seek to prevent.

But back to France. There is one policy which would have made Macron popular, or at least less unpopular with large segments of the population. Instead of increasing taxes on fuel to tackle climate change, he should introduced punitively high congestion charges in all France’s major cities. Parisiennes would cry, but ‘what about the poor?’ The poor don’t use cars in cities and, for the most part, neither do those in low to mid income bands- instead they use public transport, or avail themselves of a plenitude of other options. In cities, it is mostly the rich and the affluent who drive. They are the only ones who can really afford it.

There should have been exemptions for commercial vehicles, one can have sympathy for city drivers whose jobs depend on transport. Similarly, in London there has been a major backlash against policies which penalise drivers moving in their immediate and local vicinity, and where those measures designed to restrict, curtail or reduce local road use they almost always result in a heavier climate burden rather than lowering of pollution. But generally those who use major urban roads or travel to and from commercial districts should be made to pay for a transport option which causes unnecessary congestion and traffic logjams.

It’s bad in terms of health, with children and the elderly in particular suffering from air pollution. It prevents ambulances and other emergency services from deploying quickly to a scene, often costing lives. It reduces quality of living through omnipresent noise pollution. And it’s fundamentally fairer- because people who live in rural areas have no other viable option for getting around and getting to work, other than a car.

If he had been more politically astute, Mr Macron would have made at least some concessions on this front, in a shift to congestion tax as a means of tacking climate change, with the advent of the gilets jaunes or yellow jacket movement. This movement was characterised by those who either didn’t vote or voted for either far right or far left political parties. It was mainly rural or peri-urban. Rising fuel prices were the flash point for the protests, even if they weren’t the only issue about which the movement was irate.

Cynics will say that Mr Macron was only recognising that he had little chance of winning over these segments of society, and in failing to implement a corrective and much fairer congestion tax- and one far more likely to positively impact climate change- he was fortifying his base of core support in urban areas. But this analysis failing to account for the fact that polling of support for the gilets jaunes movement ranged from 73% to 84% amongst the French population.

It points to a deeper problem within the political class- namely, the extraordinarily narrow a range of people by class and type that politicians consult when thinking about and planning policy. Polling is a blunt instrument after all, and often the framers who ask the questions don’t really understand the people they are surveying, and don’t know the right question to ask to dissect the target audience of politicians. The teacher, the doctor, the urban restauranteur, the upper mid-level bureaucrat, the academic or the pollster- these are not the people one should consult when planning policy- instead it’s the truck driver, the rural nurse, the electrician, the farmer and the house painter whose ears one should borrow when thinking about what ordinary people might find popular.

Excepting the young, most people live in cities out of necessity not choice- as any major survey of future housing aspirations will succinctly tell you. So when designing policy one should be just as mindful of the dreams of the their future aspirational selves as much as their current circumstances. In this light, many urban dwellers might have been quite happy to see a congestion tax which targeted the rich and affluent, and put up with the inconvenience of taking a public bus (other than during Covid), because they perceived it as only a relatively temporary inconvenience through life. In this one area, which became a national symbol, President Macron displayed an extraordinary level of tone deafness which betrays a very narrow circle of acquaintances. In this, he is not alone- but rather a symbol of the broader Western political class, and its isolation from the masses.

As usual my essays are to be found on my Substack, which is free to view and comment:

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As for me, I don’t have any streaming moral banner of virtue to wave, it’s just that as a matter of personal taste I prefer to live with people who speak my language and share my culture. If someone else looks forward to the day when they are the last English speaker on their block, that’s fine too, it is neither morally superior nor inferior to my own preference. Contrast:

… the usual moral grandstanding of the globalist who takes it as given that anyone who would rather not Islamize is automatically sick in the head. It is unfortunate that if you would rather not you have no choice but to vote for LePen, I myself consider the desire to preserve one’s way of life and one’s heritage – racial/cultural/ethic – to be natural and normal and healthy and not ‘extreme’ but rather centrist.

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I think the goal (in terms of sanctions) is to punish Russia for its brazen violation of international law by invading and attempting to annex a sovereign state. I regard this as a worthy and necessary reaction on the part of the the U.S. and its European allies. We’re providing weapons and materiel to the Ukrainians in the hope that they can defend and maintain their national borders.

Are you channeling Noam Chomsky here? I’m not naive enough to believe that U.S. and European foreign policy is consistently guided by the democratic values that we profess, but neither am I cynical enough to regard those principles as nothing but a smokescreen for ulterior motives.

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You know I’m a PhD linguist who didn’t stay in the field? Noam Chomsky had a few great ideas in the 60’s, revolutionized the whole enterprise of ‘linguistics’ and came to MIT to pursue them funded mostly funded with DoD money. But by the time I was in grad school (1975), much of what he was promoting was a blind alley, though nobody who thought it was stupid could have said so at the time. He may have set back the evolution of the field of linguistics by 20 years at least. Of his politics, even a stopped clock can be right twice a day, and I kinda think his political thinking stopped over fifty years ago. In this case, I’ll agree with him that the arms industry (which he understands well, because he has taken their money) needs wars and conflicts in order to sell their goods. But I don’t think that, in itself, is what has motivated the US (and the West more generally) toward impossible missions in far-off places we don’t understand but do over-simplify. We do not do “regime change” just for a capitalistic motive. We do it to advance a Western belief system, An ill-defined and twisted system, with roots in the Enlightment, which valued freedom of thought, freedom of religion, etc., but which now believes that the next steps of ‘progress’ require denouncing some of the prior ‘freedoms.’

I don’t go on here with this discussion – we will surely hit it in another thread –

But an interesting problem is that, over the course of maybe three centuries from the reformation and enlightenment, both side of the Western world, Catholic and Protestant, and even the Orthdox in along the edges, came to some understanding of the ethics of warfare. How to define causis belli, how to issue ultimata, identification of the parties involved and the neutrals. Activities which the neutrals could or must not engage in. How to understand the implications of a statement by Bugs Bunny in the late 1930’s that “This means War!” But after the end of WWII, with the new nuclear threat, War has become Unthinkable, and we have lost the ability to think about it. And this war began because for too many people it was too unthinkable to consider how to prevent it. Or to consider why NATO presence in Ukraine could lead to a causus belli. Constructive discussion was precluded. And it will be a long war.

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Great comment. I’ve been arguing with @kaay in another thread, giving him a hard time as a means of thrashing out some of my own ideas. Perhaps I should have been a little more prone to concession. In fact, I will be:

With this part I entirely agree. My point would be how could the Russian military interpret NATO actions as anything other than an attempt to replay Jupiter missiles in Turkey with a different outcome? I think the other justifications are garbage, but this one has a sting to it.

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What does the author suppose is the source of Le Pen’s appeal? “Paranoia about Muslims” is not a serious answer. She got 41% of the vote. Not all those people can be suffering from paranoia. I honestly don’t know the answer myself because I don’t make it my business to keep up to date on French politics at anything more than a cursory level, but this article seems pretty cursory in its own right.

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I did not know that. I thought you were a cat!

I think you’re being far too generous to Putin. I think he was hellbent on attacking Ukraine and there was no way for the West to prevent the invasion short of threatening retaliation.

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They are not incompatible. @RayAndrews is a philosopher of dolphinry, or a dolphin of philosophy. I acknowledge that Schrodinger’s Cat could not have been a linguist, because it refuses to carry on any conversation.

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Specism! Who says a cat can’t get a PhD in linguistics! When you were a squirrel did your qualifications vanish? I’m triggered.

Yes. That always bothered me. If you want to know if the cat is alive or dead, just ask it. Quantum people have to make everything so difficult. All this ‘collapsing the wave function’ stuff is squid shit – if the box starts to smell like a dead cat after a few days, the cat is dead. If the cat says: “Let me out of this stinking box, wouldya?”, it’s alive.

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So typical. The monkeys are so damn clever, but so mental at the same time. Parrots can go crazy too of course, but cetaceans and corvids – nope, no time for wave functions or political tribes or economic theories. Life really is quite simple.