Macron on post-modernism

His very own Grand Narrative

4 minutes to read
Jan Blommaert

Emmanuel Macron came to power through a landslide in mid-2017 as a surprise candidate smashing France's traditional power blocs and ideological camps. His power was to a very large extent designed by a media offensive of rare proportions, in which the (relatively) young and clean former minister in Hollande's socialist government was offered unique opportunities for self-branding, for proliferating his message of hope and optimism, and for the kind of panoptic 24/7 observations usually reserved for rockstars and movie celebrities of the Mick Jagger and George Clooney league. Truly (we were told) here was somebody new, someone with a great and innovative project that would rebuild not just France but the entire EU. Macron became a political superhero overnight.

He was treated as such in a recent interview in Der Spiegel too. It is one of the strangest political interviews I read in years. It starts off (in German fashion, one supposes) with a brief discussion on Hegel. Then the focus is (briefly again) on Macron's dog, then on the President's illustrious predecessors in the Elysée (Macron highlights the two Bonapartes and De Gaulle), and then on ... postmodernism. This happens in an answer to a seemingly innocuous question about the difference between political theory and practice. Macron goes in overdrive:

"For me, my office isn't first and foremost a political or technical one. Rather, it is symbolic. I am a strong believer that modern political life must rediscover a sense for symbolism. We need to develop a kind of political heroism. I don't mean that I want to play the hero. But we need to be amenable once again to creating grand narratives. If you like, post-modernism was the worst thing that could have happened to our democracy."

The end of the Grand Narratives is a very bad thing, claims the man who rose to power on the traditional Left but appointed a Prime Minster from the traditional Right and claimed throughout that he would remain untainted by ideological bias of any sort. The political "doer not thinker" now sees his office as "symbolic" rather than as a workplace where the rebuilding of country and continent needs to be pursued. His often declared pragmatism is replaced now by a yearning for "heroism" and "grand narratives". By absence of all that idealism, he declares, a democracy lacks foundations. And who is responsible for the absence of idealism? Exactly: post-modernism.

Macron elaborates:

"The idea that you have to deconstruct and destroy all grand narratives is not a good one. Since then, trust has evaporated in everything and everyone. I am sometimes surprised that it is the media that are the first ones to exhibit a lack of trust in grand narratives. They believe that destroying something is part of their journalistic purpose because something grand must inevitably contain an element of evil. Critique is necessary, but where does this hate for the so-called grand narrative come from?"

This democracy-eroding post-modernism is "the idea that you have to deconstruct and destroy all grand narratives" and it has a locus: the media. Journalists are the post-modernists of the day because they are critical. Their critique, so it seems, is inspired by something irrational: a "hate for the so-called grand narrative". And this, then erodes "trust in everything and everyone".

Pushed by the interviewer to somewhat clarify the importance of grand narratives, Macron becomes slightly incoherent:

"I think we need it badly! Why is a portion of our youth so fascinated by extremes, jihadism for example? Why do modern democracies refuse to allow their citizens to dream? Why can't there be such a thing as democratic heroism? Perhaps exactly that is our task: rediscovering something like that together for the 21st century."

It's about "allowing" democratic citizens to "dream", but probably no longer in terms of the Left and Right, lest the dreamers - the young ones - get "fascinated by extremes". No, the dreams have to be about democratic heroism. Which needs to be "rediscovered". This, then, concludes the part of the interview on Macron's big vision; what follows is a familiar Q&A on current issues and topics, in which Macron appears as his usual pragmatic self.

In terms of rhetorical technique, Macron makes a cool move. He ties a vague but sophisticated and eloquent term such as "post-modernism" directly to two other elements: the ethos of the (critical) press - the negative, destructive factor - and the heroic dreams of the democratic citizen - the positive, constructive factor. He opposes critical journalism to dreaming democrats in search of a new Grand Narrative for the 21st century.

Macron opposes critical journalism to dreaming democrats in search of a new Grand Narrative for the 21st century.

This dreaming democratic citizen is, of course, in itself an example of what Roland Barthes in the 1950s called "mythologies": the construction of subliminal imageries of value, attached to consumer commodities. And Barthes' ruthless dissection of such mythologies as identitary fictions lubricating the dominant bourgeois liberal-consumerist regime can, indeed, be seen as a prime example of "deconstruction" in the sense used by Macron. Barthes, in addition, identified a precise function for sych mythologies: the exnomination of the bourgeoisie, the comfort of not being named as a party in a game of power. There are "labour parties" bearing that name everywhere, Barthes observed, but no "party of the bourgeoisie", for the bourgeoisie as the ruling power is kept invisible by the clever play of its mythologies.

Whether contemporary journalists reiterate Barthes' sophisticated analysis is highly doubtful. But what they continue to do, and doubtless should do, is to distinguish fiction from facts and myth from history. In light of what Roland Barthes had to say about that, Macron's distaste for such forms of criticism might be tantamount to shouting: "don't look at me while I am in power!" Or to use Macron's own words: my office is symbolic, it's part of a democratic dream and a step up towards democratic heroism. After all, I was a superhero when I got elected, wasn't I (after which, alas, my ratings started nosediving)? I am my very own Grand Narrative, my own 21st century mythology - so don't touch it.