France’s Philosopher-Presidents

France’s Philosopher-Presidents

Emmanuel Macron’s recent eight-hour debate with dozens of academics follows a long line of French leaders who champion intellectual discourse. But you can’t read your way out of a crisis.

Emmanuel Macron at a book signing in 2016 (Thibault Moritz/IP3/Getty Images)

In his latest effort to wiggle out from the gilets jaunes crisis, now entering its fifth month, France’s president Emmanuel Macron invited a wide range of intellectuals to the Élysée palace last week for what he called a “Great Debate of Ideas.” Like a chess grandmaster competing simultaneously against dozens of players, Macron engaged with over sixty historians, philosophers, political scientists, sociologists, and scientists—including no less than three Nobel laureates and one Fields Medal winner—in what amounted to an eight-hour televised spectacle. Offered a stage on which to show off his verbal mastery, quick thinking, and stamina, ever ready to play the attentive listener happy to hear critics out, Macron was in his element. Not only did the format ensure that no one participant would have enough time to develop her ideas in a sustained way, but Macron always had the last word.

There had been some hand-wringing among leftist intellectuals about whether to participate. Some, like historian of immigration Gérard Noiriel and philosopher of economics Frédéric Lordon, pointedly declined invitations. Others, like the clinical dissector of capitalism’s adaptive resilience Luc Boltanski, accepted. Sociologist Dominique Méda regretted her participation, writing in Libération afterwards: “We were his stooges.” When the government announced the next morning that it would deploy the army to maintain order during future gilets jaunes protests, it was hard not to conclude that the only words Macron had taken to heart were those of Pascal Bruckner, a Maoist-turned-vilifier of postcolonial guilt, who had admonished the president to adopt “a firmer response” to “a slow-motion anarcho-fascist coup d’état.”

More than a recondite exercise in what one participant termed gilet-jaunologie, more even than a political image-making operation, there was something peculiarly French at play in this marathon of talk. As sociologist Michel Wieviorka quipped ninety minutes in, “It’s hard to imagine an event like this at the White House.” Indeed, this tableau of a president engaged in intellectual exchange offers a powerful illustration of an important and enduring feature of French political culture. Understanding Macron’s own intellectual trajectory helps make sense of his rise to power, his political choices, and his current struggles to defuse the gilets jaunes protests.

It is a longstanding tradition for presidents of France’s Fifth Republic, and those who aspire to that office, to advertise their love of letters. They quote liberally from canonical French authors in speeches. Some take the next step, testing their fortunes as men of letters. If you can get past his insufferable use of the third person to refer to himself, Charles de Gaulle’s autobiography is smartly and, at moments, beautifully written. Georges Pompidou, a former French and classics lycée teacher and sharp-eyed collector of modernist art, published a poetry anthology in 1961. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, elected to the French Academy in 2003, published his first of several novels in 1994. Former foreign and prime minister Dominique de Villepin’s In Praise of the Fire Thieves pays fevered tribute to his favorite poets.

Since the 1990s, publishing a book—typically a biography of a major figure from French history who is meant to incarnate the author’s own leadership virtues—has become an all but necessary step in the construction of a presidential career. Three-time presidential candidate François Bayrou published his biography of fellow Béarnais Henri IV in 1994, positing the king’s peacemaking in religious-war-torn France as a model for his own centrist political project. Erstwhile Socialist presidential hopeful Jack Lang published a biography of François I in 1997, implicitly comparing the king’s promotion of arts and letters to his own impressive record as François Mitterrand’s minister of culture. Former center-right prime minister and longtime mayor of Bordeaux Alain Juppé published his biography of native son Montesquieu in 1999. Villepin’s 2001 Hundred Days admiringly retraces Bonaparte’s ill-fated attempt to return to power in 1815.

The literary commitments of some of these politicians-turned-authors are undoubtedly sincere. Mitterrand, who produced a sizeable published oeuvre and was an insatiable reader, once told Elie Wiesel that, to the extent he had ever entertained a life ambition, it was to be a great writer. His friend Gabriel García Marquéz observed admiringly that Mitterrand “was clearly a man of letters, in the reverential and slightly fatalist sense that only the French understand.”

The authenticity of other literary vocations, discerned as they are with suspicious suddenness, is less sure. Nicolas Sarkozy’s 1994 life of Georges Mandel (a journalist and politician executed during the Second World War for his role in the Resistance) was never going to convince anyone that this most notorious of non-readers had embraced the life of the mind. In the café where graduate students gather at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, the names of the young, underemployed scholars who really penned some of these volumes are gleefully circulated.

This litany of book-loving politicians extends backward into the nineteenth century to include writer-statesmen like François Guizot, Alphonse de Lamartine, and Adolphe Thiers. The Pantheon, the mausoleum created during the Revolution to honor its heroes, reserves a prominent place for writers—Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, André Malraux, Alexandre Dumas, and Aimé Césaire are all interred there—testifying to literature’s central place in France’s twin national and republican identities.

In the very country that invented the figure of the intellectual, authorized by erudition and eloquence to intervene in matters of public concern—Voltaire combating religious intolerance, Zola taking up the defense of Alfred Dreyfus—leaders seem to aspire to emulate them. Politicians were regular guests on the long-running literary talk show Apostrophes, which had upward of 5 million weekly viewers in its heyday: Mitterrand came on to speak about his latest book in 1975; as president, Giscard chatted about Guy de Maupassant in 1979.

While such exercises can elevate public debate, they can also lay bare the disconnect between discourse and action. Mitterrand’s 1964 book The Permanent Coup d’État denounced the Fifth Republic’s concentration of powers in the hands of the executive—powers which he proved more than happy to wield once installed as president.

France’s president Emmanuel Macron boasts no such oeuvre. His ascent to power was perhaps too sudden and unexpected for him to have padded his résumé with anything other than the obligatory book-length electoral program, entitled Revolution. But make no mistake: Macron is more deeply engaged with intellectual life than any French president since Mitterrand.

By his own telling, Macron has his grandmother to thank for his love of literature (and for his youthful leftist commitments). That the presidential couple met in a theater workshop at a Jesuit lycée in Amiens—he as a student, she as a literature teacher—is now the stuff of breathless profiles. After twice failing the demanding entrance examination for the École Normale Supérieure, a higher education institution that trains university professors and researchers, Macron went on to write a master’s thesis on Machiavelli and a DEA (a kind of preliminary dissertation) on Hegel at Nanterre under the supervision of the prominent Marxist philosopher Étienne Balibar. Macron’s deep familiarity with music, literature, and philosophy is on constant display. Like Mitterrand, Macron has confessed to having nursed dreams of a literary career; we can only hope that Babylone Babylone, the unpublished picaresque novel retelling Hernán Cortés’s conquest of Mexico to which the president has tantalizingly alluded, will one day see the light of day.

Macron’s embrace of literature is longstanding and sincere, but he has also cannily turned it to political advantage. His official portrait shows him in his office in the Elysée, leaning against his desk, atop which sit De Gaulle’s memoirs, Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, and André Gide’s The Fruits of the Earth—each in the instantly recognizable leather-bound Pléiade editions that adorn the homes of well-educated middle-class French families. In this, the photograph reproduces the canons of the genre, quoting the portraits of De Gaulle, Pompidou, and Sarkozy, who all posed in the Élysée’s library, as did Mitterrand, Montaigne’s Essays in hand.

But no chapter of Macron’s intellectual formation has drawn more attention than his stint as French philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s research assistant. Hired when he was a twenty-one-year-old student to help Ricoeur as he wrote his influential book Memory, History, Forgetting (2000), Macron went on to serve on the board of the Ricoeur archives after the philosopher’s death in 2005. He also joined the editorial board of Esprit, a journal with which Ricoeur was deeply involved, and today is one of its shareholders.

Were an ambitious young man to have set out in the 1990s in search of a prominent intellectual mentor in his personal bildungsroman, he would have been hard pressed to do better than Ricoeur. One of the most important figures in twentieth-century French philosophy, Ricoeur’s work, in dialogue with French post-structuralism but never really of it, explored a remarkable range of themes, from the will and evil to phenomenology and hermeneutics. At once a committed Protestant, conditional pacifist, and socialist, Ricoeur was active in the left-leaning Protestant Christianisme social movement (which he led from 1958 to 1969), as well as the progressive Catholic Esprit group (which produced the aforementioned journal). Ricoeur threw his support behind the May ’68 uprising, advocating for the student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit at his disciplinary hearing at the Sorbonne and subsequently resigning as chair of Nanterre’s philosophy department in solidarity with the protesters. Named dean of Nanterre in the hopes he could facilitate dialogue with the unruly student body, Ricoeur was beleaguered by Maoists (who in one confrontation famously dumped a garbage can on his head), and he ultimately resigned in exhaustion. He spent much of the latter part of his career at the University of Chicago.

Macron’s encounter with Ricoeur was, in his own telling, life-changing. “It’s Ricoeur who pushed me to enter politics,” he recalled in 2015, “because he himself had never done so.” In Revolution, Macron added, “Today, I still read him and try to nourish my action with his thought, with his philosophy, and with everything he taught me.” It’s not hard to see why Macron—graduate of the oft-decried École Nationale d’Administration, where much of France’s high civil service are trained, technocrat in the elite financial inspection service, and investment banker at Rothschild & Cie.—would want to make as much of his relationship with Ricoeur as he has.

In the months following Macron’s election, no less than three books, along with a veritable tsunami of articles and op-ed pieces, set out to ascertain to what extent Ricoeur had in fact shaped the president’s politics. Historian François Dosse, who published an exhaustive biography of Ricoeur in 1997 (and who introduced Ricoeur to Macron), argues in The Philosopher and the President that Macron’s program is fundamentally in harmony with the philosopher’s ideas. More than an exercise in intellectual history, Dosse’s book is a political endorsement of Macron. In Macron by Ricoeur: The Philosopher and the Politician, Pierre-Olivier Monteil (the author of a study on Ricoeur’s political thought) makes much the same argument, with less cheerleading. Journalist Brice Couturier, who since the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris has taken to railing against a supposed Islamic “fifth column” on the move in France, maps Macron’s intellectual influences more broadly in Macron, A Philosopher-President. Like Dosse and Moneteil, Couturier sees in Macron France’s last great hope, the embodiment of a left-liberalism inspired by thinkers like Ricoeur and, more improbably, Michael Walzer.

Others have questioned whether there is any serious connection between Ricoeur and Macron’s politics. For philosopher Olivier Abel (who as a child got to know Ricoeur in Protestant circles), Macron’s rhetoric and governing style borrow aspects of Ricoeur’s thought without following it systematically. Olivier Mongin, who as chief editor of Esprit from 1988 to 2012 knew both Ricoeur and Macron well, argues that, because Ricoeur preferred opening up conceptual oppositions to resolving them and never sought to establish a school of thought, “it’s useless and ridiculous to present Ricoeur as a Macronien or Macron as a Ricoeurien.” The board of the Ricoeur archives issued a statement warning against partisan appropriations of the philosopher’s memory. Philosopher Henri Peña-Ruiz went further still in the pages of Le Monde, accusing Macron’s economic reforms of representing nothing less than a betrayal of Ricoeur’s thought.

It’s certainly possible to detect elements of Ricoeur’s philosophical vocabulary in Macron’s rhetoric. The president’s frequent use of the adverbial phrase “at the same time” to weigh competing positions recalls Ricoeur’s taste for paradox. Macron’s calls for a looser, more open laïcité, the uniquely French conception of separation of church and state, are in line with Ricoeur’s writings on the question. As befits someone who helped Ricoeur with Memory, History, Forgetting, Macron can speak powerfully about France’s moral responsibility for its colonial past and the plural, open-ended character of its history and identity.

Yet one cannot help but wonder what Ricoeur would have thought of Macron’s presidency. What would Ricoeur, who in the 1960s opposed a reform to end open enrollment at France’s universities, have made of Macron’s own move to restrict admissions and hike tuition fees for foreign students? What would Ricoeur, who lobbied for the regularization of a group of undocumented Malian immigrants in Paris in 1996 in his capacity as a government-appointed mediator, have had to say about Macron’s decision to restrict immigration and accelerate deportations? What would Ricoeur, who was briefly jailed for his opposition to the Algerian War, have thought of the heavy-handed policing of the gilets jaunes protests? What would Ricoeur, who never wavered in his commitment to the socialist ideal, have made of Macron’s economic program?

Ricoeur actually had an opportunity to reflect in real time on political economy when he sat down in 1991 for a conversation with Socialist prime minister Michel Rocard. After quitting the SFIO, the ancestor of the modern Socialist Party, as a student to protest its support of the Algerian War (as did Ricoeur), Rocard (who also shared Ricoeur’s Protestantism) became the competing Parti Socialiste Unifié’s leader in 1967. Finally joining Mitterrand’s Parti Socialiste (PS) in 1974, Rocard came to animate the so-called second left, opposed to the centralization dear to both French statism and the planned economy doctrines then in fashion in the PS, and committed to expanding the role of civil society and the market. Rocard and Ricoeur planned to write a book together entitled The Philosopher and the Politician, but, short on time, they settled on a dialogue published in Esprit.

Ricoeur’s own political views had by this time evolved a great deal since the 1930s, when he was a regular contributor to Terre Nouvelle, the self-proclaimed “organ of Christian revolutionaries.” Now drawn to rocardien reformism, the philosopher signed a petition in 1995 initiated by Esprit offering qualified support for a cost-cutting reform of France’s retirement and medical systems piloted by Juppé. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who threw his support behind the month-long strikes that successfully fought back the reform, contemptuously dismissed Ricoeur’s position as “typical of reactionary thought” in a speech to striking railway workers at Paris’s Gare de Lyon. All the same, Ricoeur remained deeply concerned by the emergence of new forms of social exclusion. In an interview with L’Humanité a year before the 1995 strikes, he exhorted the French left to reach out to “the category of people who are no longer part of the social contract.”

In their 1991 conversation, Ricoeur doggedly pushed Rocard to temper his embrace of capitalism. Drawing on Walzer’s Spheres of Justice, Ricoeur argued that just societies should identify classes of goods that cannot be left to the market to allocate. Conceding that the recent collapse of the Soviet Union presented a grave conceptual challenge to the socialist project, Ricoeur insisted on the necessity of imagining new utopias to give political action direction, meaning, and hope. That same year, Ricoeur warned in the pages of Le Monde of the dangers posed by the reification of market efficiency and technocratic expertise as incontestable rationalities:

We are today relinquishing any voice in decisions concerning economic, financial, fiscal, and other such problems in favor of experts. These domains have become so complicated, we are told, that we must submit to the judgement of those who know. There is in this, in fact, a kind of expropriation of the citizen. Public discussion thus finds itself captured and monopolized by experts.

Rocard bears many similarities with Macron. Both crossed paths with Ricoeur as young men and were ENA graduates who entered the financial inspection corps. Both sought to “modernize” French socialism and were deeply committed to the European project. Both were acclaimed as brilliant, forward-looking hopes for France, Macron during his meteoric rise to power and Rocard for far longer. Indeed, they became friends, and when Rocard passed away in 2016, Macron eulogized him as a model and an inspiration. But whereas Rocard chose to tour Algeria as a young man, helping uncover the French army’s secret internment of large numbers of civilians and its use of napalm, Macron took a leave from government service to make money as an investment banker. And Rocard proved less politically adept than Macron, his presidential ambitions repeatedly dashed by the matchless tactician Mitterrand.

Rather than meet the challenge Ricoeur posed to Rocard over twenty-five years ago, Macron has embraced the neoliberal ideal. In an interview with the business daily Les Échos as finance minister in 2015, Macron declared: “We need young French people who want to become billionaires. I am not one of those people who stigmatizes the companies that make up the CAC40 [stock index], for it is they who structure the French economy.” Channeling his inner Joseph Schumpeter, he went further in a summer 2017 interview, emphasizing “it is important to liberate the process of creative destruction.”

The proposed carbon tax that sparked the gilets jaunes protests, which, coming in the wake of tax cuts on corporations and the wealthy placed the costs of decarbonizing France’s economy squarely on the backs of lower-income households, is emblematic of Macron’s broader social calculus. So too his reform of the Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer (SNCF), France’s state-owned railway monopoly, aimed at preparing for EU-mandated competition and—it is widely believed—a future privatization. By taking on railway workers, who launched a series of rolling strikes in spring 2018 to defend their protected employment status, Macron proved both his determination and his ability to win the battle Chirac and Juppé lost in 1995. Over two decades later, the arguments were the same: the railway monopoly is a costly, taxpayer supported relic of an obsolete state-planned past, its workers’ benefits a profligate privilege. Prime Minister Édouard Philippe justified the reform as a necessary response to the SNCF’s “alarming, not to say unsustainable, situation.” He made no mention of the SNCF’s 679 million euros in 2017 profits, or the fact that the company’s titanic debt stems from neither labor costs nor pension obligations, but from the costs of building France’s state-mandated high-speed rail network. As sources inside the SNCF whispered to reporters, given that the “privileges” heretofore enjoyed by railway workers cost less than the wages commanded by newly recruited employees, the reform may well end up driving up labor costs. This is an ideological assault on economic activity outside the market—to hell with the cost.

Rocard, who became prime minister at the end of the Cold War, can be forgiven for encouraging socialists to embrace the market. And his most important legacy is the Revenu Minimum d’Insertion, a kind of basic universal income for people whose unemployment insurance has run out. After nearly three decades of neoliberal ascendancy, Macron has no such excuse. We know where labor market deregulation, punitive measures to force the unemployed off benefits, tax cuts on wealthier households to spur productive investment, and privatization of infrastructure—all currently in the works in Macron’s France—lead. It will, perhaps, bring down France’s stubbornly high unemployment rate, but at the cost of the kind of yawning inequality and entrenched poverty that define the social landscapes of the United States, the United Kingdom, and increasingly Germany. It will, perhaps, make France into the “start-up nation” that Macron celebrates (no matter that it was already the top European destination for tech start-up financing before he took office). But it is harder to see how breaking up public transportation systems, or reducing investment in France’s vast public housing nexus, will help weave excluded suburbs and postindustrial regions back into the national fabric and, as Macron promised during the campaign, restore “the cohesion of our society.” As philosopher Jean-Claude Monod put it, if Macron is a ricoeurien, this is a ricoeurisme amputated of socialism.

That so much has been made of Ricoeur’s supposed influence on Macron may seem much ado about philosophical nothing, a pretentious tempest in a Gallic teapot. There is, after all, a conceptual mismatch between the philosopher’s dense body of thought and Macron’s timeworn recipe of OECD-approved structural reforms. That hasn’t stopped those who make the case for Macron, like the Institut Montaigne think tank, from stamping the president’s neoliberal boilerplate with Ricoeur’s philosophical imprimatur.

Macron’s current tribulations have done much to tarnish his image as a triumphant philosopher-president. That it gained traction in the first place represents a specifically French response to a more general crisis of representative democracy. A disoriented French polity turned to its literary culture for reassurance. Macron’s prime minister Philippe got in on the act with a book published in 2017 entitled Of People Who Read, a literary autobiography that prescribes books as a salve that might help pacify France. Socialist politician Guillaume Bachelay makes a similar case in Politics Saved by Books. Their plea is at once noble—who could argue with the ideal of a nation of readers?—and empty—as if books, any books, will suffice to heal France’s divisions and help it find its way in the twenty-first century.

As Perrine Simon-Nahum pointed out in a critique of Philippe’s book in Libération, it’s rather curious to define books as sources of pleasurable consensus when the best of them are pointed interventions in heated contemporary debates. To celebrate Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables as a shared national treasure, as Philippe does, is to bowdlerize a ferociously political novel that condemns the death penalty and the repression of the poor, and was penned by a politician whose republicanism forced him into exile after Napoleon III’s seizure of power. Moreover, this sacralization of literary patrimony elides a contemporary scene crowded with books that probe France’s fault lines. Michel Houellebecq’s controversial novels sketch acid portraits of a France in decline, atomized by capitalism, sexual frustration, and spiritual emptiness. Didier Eribon’s Returning to Reims offers a searing reflection on escaping his working-class background. Éric Zemmour’s reactionary paeans to traditionalist mythologies of a white, Catholic France speak to the worst angels of France’s nature—precisely the nationalist narrative that France in the World: A New Global History, edited by Patrick Boucheron, seeks to overturn. The mere act of reading, shorn of any inquiry into what particular books mean and how they might inspire action, cannot on its own mend the social fabric. This is no way for a society to think its way out of a crisis.

Paul Cohen is associate professor of history at the University of Toronto.