Can Europe Make It?

‘Must say’ and ‘must not say’ words for the French President

A short guide on how to translate what is said to discover how power is imposing control in France.

Chris Myant
Chris Myant
21 July 2020
Gerald Darmanin attends Macron’s live address following the ‘Great National Debate’, April 2019.
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Blondet Eliot/PA. All rights reserved.

The distortion of the truth in the discourse of those who run France is not new. What is, is the enthusiastic, earnest, determined way in which the Macronie engages in the exercise both of the power to impose control and the perversion of the language to disguise what it is about. The vocabulary of the Macronie has a habit of repeating itself. Like the annoying reflux of a distasteful meal, it betrays itself by the endless recurrence of mendacious double-talk.

Take four words in the following order: Merci, thank you; effort, one of those words from French into English without any change of spelling or meaning, unless you are an old-style French medical practitioner and you are referring to the consequence, a strain in the back, not the action, the effort, which caused it (which second meaning, as we shall see, could be very appropriate when it comes to the activities of a certain Bruno Le Maire); territoire, strictly territory, but as used by the Macronie now, more like locality; and autonomie, autonomy or self-government. There will be a fifth word analysed but that one will not be revealed until later because it is not a word Macron likes to have used about himself.

Merci

For many a month, the word Merci was the most common in the vocabulary of Macron’s acolytes. Google Stanislas Guerini and Merci and you open a Pandora’s Box of earnest declarations of gratitude. Guerini has been the one running Macron’s En Marche! organisation for the last eighteen months. He has developed the art of saying Merci to a pitch of ultimate insincerity. He has offered it to the En Marche! activists in the recent local elections, to the health workers dealing with Covid-19, and now to the firefighters at the cathedral in Nantes. If ever you go to an En Marche! meeting you are served it many times over.

Personally, I have attended many a political meeting and the process of thanking those there has usually had an air of involuntarily letting slip the desperate relief that anyone has actually turned up (it is getting more and more like that when it comes to En March! events). Having been on occasion the billed speaker only to find that I was the sole person present, I know that at moments like that, the words Thank you may even come out with a vicious tone of sarcasm.

It is never so with Guerini. A good bet is that overlaying the recordings of each and every time he utters his Merci, one would not find the slightest difference in the tremolo of delivery after delivery. Probably, like others in the Macronie, he is reflecting a continued disbelief over the way in which their leader successfully betrayed, outflanked and overtook all comers in the race to the Elysée in 2017. It is like the applause Russian passengers give a pilot who successfully delivers them back to an airport runway safe and sound.

Effort, territoire and autonomie

Effort is different. As in the announcement by that Bruno Le Maire after he had been kept in place in charge of the economy during Macron’s government reshuffle: the French public are going to have to “faire un effort sur les dépenses publiques”, make an effort on public expenditure.

On first hearing such a formulation one could be forgiven for thinking that what Le Maire means is that we are going to have to make an effort to find more resources for the various public authorities to spend on all those vitally needed causes in France. But, remember, this is a world in which words change their meaning. The French people need to faire un effort now translates as “I, Bruno Le Maire, am going to take an axe to public spending.”

There is a problem, though, for Macron, in just doing that from the top of the political hierarchy in France. It unites the opposition. A focus for public anger is easy to find. And that would get in the way of the magician repeating his electoral trick in 2022.

So at a wave of his wand, out popped another word: territoire. It currently competes with Merci when it comes to repetitions. Jean Castex, the new prime minister is, Macron has told us, an “homme de territoire”. In this usage, it means something like “He’s a local bloke”. Rather as in the image of the chap at the bar that Nigel Farrage tried to foster, though the crudeness of a guy holding a pint, fag in fingers, would never do for Castex.

The first half of Macron’s presidency was one of division and popular anger over the “reforms” he enforced. Several remain in place. Trade union power at the national level has been decisively neutered. The railway system has been fully prepared for EU competition rules and the rail unions broken.

The role assigned to Castex is to find a way to present the appearance of consensus while letting Le Maire get on with his work as France copes with the disaster of its failures in its confrontation with SARS-Cov-2. Two big changes – a radical worsening of provision for the unemployed and a new pensions system designed to hand control over expenditure levels to whoever is the Bruno Le Maire of the future – remain established in law but their implementation is now suspended until the end of the year. The immediate priority is to get the unions at company level to accept longer hours at work for the same, or less, pay.

The immediate priority is to get the unions at company level to accept longer hours at work for the same, or less, pay.

To make all this work for him electorally, Macron needs to seduce voters on the right, given that he has all but lost those on the left who gave him his initial lift-up. So Castex announced that one of his “major pre-occupations” would be “the struggle against radical Islamism in all its forms” along with an early law “against separatisms” in which “certain groups enclose themselves in an ethnic or religious identity”. The word “séparatisme” having replaced “communautarisme” in the Macron dictionary.

The right also likes the idea that more by way of role and power should be given to local authorities of which they control a lot. Hence the talk of territoire. Jupiter Macron will spread a little more responsibility to those at the level of Prades, the Pyrenean village with 6,000 inhabitants where Castex was re-elected mayor at the end of June. Once world-famous for Pablo Casals’ music festivals, its last left wing mayor was a Communist post office worker beaten in the 1983 local elections. Now, like whole swathes of France outside the biggest cities, it is in the hands of the traditional right, of which Castex has been a life-long member.

Territoire, of course, has little meaning if everything is still decided in Paris. So we get autonomie. Macron and Castex will graciously allow the regions, departments, cities and communes a bit more wriggle room in which to work out what to spend and how. Put that in the context of Le Maire’s axe and real meaning of the two words transforms into something else: politicians at the local level will be the ones who have to choose what to slash and burn, they will be the ones who, Macron so desperately hopes, carry the can of political responsibility before the French electorate.

Gérald Darmanin

One could add in here two other words. Mandat, as in “I have a mandate from the French people”, a phrase Macron likes to repeat to those who oppose him. And then consentement as in “Any sexual relations I had with her, were with her consent.”

They come together because of Gérald Darmanin, once Le Maire’s side-kick on the economy, is now the new Interior Minister responsible for the police services, one of whose duties is to track down and bring to justice rapists. A rape charge against Darmanin has done the rounds of the French judicial investigative system. Three times he has seen it dropped, only to have the Paris Court of Appeal earlier this year order a new investigation.

Macron gave him the new job after a private “man to man” chat. Darmanin himself offered in his own defence the phrase: “I have had the life of a young man.” What we know of the case is that a woman, desperate for new accommodation and vulnerable in the wake of a messy divorce, applied to Darmanin as mayor of a town a grade up from Prades, Turcoing with a population of 100,000, for help in finding a home. He denies any non-consensual sex.

France has a particular problem with the issue of consent, both in sex and in politics. The parallel is impossible to miss in the context of Darmanin’s troubling appointment. By any reasonable interpretation, rape can hove into view as an interpretation of what has happened when the target of the behaviour does not explicitly say Yes. And, surely, anyone who claims to have a mandate to drive a coach and horses through a society’s existing order of things, needs an explicit Yes to that proposition from the country’s electors? Which is not what Macron got back in 2017.

Surely, anyone who claims to have a mandate to drive a coach and horses through a society’s existing order of things, needs an explicit Yes to that proposition from the country’s electors?

French elections have two rounds. In the first round, all take part. For presidential votes only the top two go forward to a second round. Macron got a quarter of the votes in the first round, the proportion of voters prepared to give an explicit Yes to his programme. In the second round, he faced only the racist extreme right leader, Marine Le Pen, and his score rose to two thirds of those voting. That was a No to Le Pen, rather than a Yes to Macron. Which puts the issue of consentement into much the same dangerous vagueness as those who lead “the life of a young man” put that of the vulnerable they seek to dominate.

The outburst of anger from many women across France over Darmanin’s appointment has paralleled the successive explosions of fury against Macron’s programme. The keys to the Elysée in his hand, he has given himself to right to do as he pleases with the French people, a right he now realises he may not retain after 2022, the date when he has go back and ask the French electorate to consent to him being President for a further five years.

Hence our final stop at the word employé, as in “You are my employee”, a phrase that really irked Emmanuel Macron.

Employé

The President chose to go for a stroll outside the grounds of the Elysée on 14 July, the day chosen to symbolise the time at the start of the French Revolution when people set about transforming French society so that those running public affairs should be their servants and not their rulers, their employees, rather than their gang masters. He chose the nearby Tuileries, a typically French formal park.

Just one difficulty got in the way of a relaxing Presidential early evening, free from the cares of state, or rather, to follow French official practice, State. Others were strolling there too. The day, Bastille Day, is a public holiday in France, so why not? Among them, was a Gilets jaunes activist, Richard, with some of his colleagues. They had been on the health workers demo elsewhere in the capital earlier in the day.

Just one difficulty got in the way of a relaxing Presidential early evening… Others were there too.

Macron démission”, Macron resign, echoed around as soon as they and others realised they were walking alongside the couple from the Elysée. “You can shout yourselves hoarse,” Macron responded, “There is a democracy!” He is often at his best in these moments, keeping his calm, smiling without a hint of embarrassment, controlling the tempers of those around him by his own capacity not to lose his.

As the argument continued, Richard made the simple and absolutely correct observation – seeing as Macron had said France was a democracy – “Vous êtes mon employé, Monsieur le Président.” You are my employee, Mr President.

Talk about turning the world upside down. Could Jupiter allow a mere mortal, and an unemployed one at that, the right to call him their employee? That would drag consentement from the realms of “the life of a young man” and place it firmly in the territoire of a truly democratic practice. Nearly everyone in the vicinity of their exchanges had their smart phone out and was filming so the rest of us could know what was said.

Hey, said Macron, I even had the Great Debate! But the likes of Richard never got a look in during those choreographed sessions over a year ago. Only now was he getting his revenge. And the videos let us know that, Cool – as in Keep cool, and certainly not as in That’s good, or I agree – was the new must-repeat word for the President as he tried, before those citizen cameras, to shut down what threatened to become a debate with some real content.

And what of that member of the French electorate, Richard? Quite by chance, he was picked up by the police a few hours later and allowed to spend four hours over midnight as the guest of those others he employs, Gérald Darmanin’s les forces de l’ordre. Clearly, quite by chance.

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