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Our subject, a 45-year-old French male, called Nato “brain-dead”. He supports industrial protection at both the national and EU levels of government. When I arrived in Washington in 2018, he was viewed locally as having made more effort to cultivate Donald Trump than any other major western leader. Two years later, during the George Floyd protests, he seemed to regard the statue-toppling and person-cancelling as neurotic Anglo weirdness. (“The republic will erase no trace or names of its history.”)
He had a prolonged tiff with the Turkish president over extreme Islam. He was on terms with Vladimir Putin long after the invasion of Ukraine. This month, he was instrumental in scuppering the appointment of an American economist to a big EU post.
If Emmanuel Macron is “globalist” or “liberal”, he is useless at it. In truth, he is a fairly classical president of France: somewhat dirigiste, pro-EU but cool on the single market and forever casting around for a brokering role between the west and its antagonists. In a clear-thinking era, nationalists around the world would regard him as a non-threat, and perhaps even as one of them. (We’ll come back to that phrase.) Instead, they have him down as Davos Man.
And you can see why. I mean, you can literally see why. He presents as: smarty-pants, urban, a tad vain and, for a French president, brazenly anglophone. Even the slightly mod sideburns “place” him. On the basis of such superficialities, such tribal signifiers, he is framed as an airport departure-lounge liberal. Anything he does in that vein, such as pension reform, is played up. The contrary stuff — the statism, the Kremlin-courting — is minimised.
And so we have a very 21st-century situation. Anglo-American populists dislike Macron with a vehemence that is as unbecoming as the Trump Derangement Syndrome they once diagnosed in liberals. Yet he is closer to them in outlook than some on their own side. Although it isn’t his fault, no serving politician better illuminates the emptiness of public life now.
Just as Newton and Leibniz fought over who invented calculus, there is an intra-media wrangle about who first propounded the “vibes theory of politics”. Always a martyr to the advancement of human knowledge, I am willing to forfeit all credit if the theory itself goes out into the world and prospers.
The vibes theory submits that people’s political beliefs are laughably weak. They do not work out what they think and then join the corresponding movement. They join a movement and then infer from it what to think. This is why, once you know someone’s line on Roe vs Wade, you can guess with some confidence their view on vaccines, tax, Greta Thunberg and other questions that have no logical read-across to abortion. They are aligning themselves with their flock, not parsing each issue on its own terms. It answers a psychic need to belong that was once met by religion, fixed communities and stable families.
That need to belong costs Macron. What he does skews nationalist. But the vibes he gives off are those of the opposite camp. And nationalists prioritise the second over the first. He doesn’t feel like theirs. (The man himself, with his philosophical training, might say “semiotics” instead of “vibes”.)
I write as though I myself am immune to this. And it won’t do to leave you with that impression.
Every few years, I re-read Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. I have it on the go now. Jim is a sailor who has committed an act of dishonour on the high seas. But the narrator likes the lad. He is sure, from his contrition and even his bearing, that he is a true maritime man. “One of us”. Those three words recur through the book until you realise that Conrad is sending you a message: about the credulity of the narrator, about the power of tribalism to muddle the mind.
Well, I think of Macron as “one of us”. He looks like every man in the business-class carriage of the 18.01 Eurostar. Come to think of it, he looks like the average of the last 10 friends I have dined with. If he weighed 20kg more, wore less fitted clothes and refused to speak English, I would see him more clearly as a semi-Gaullist. As much as his haters and I disagree, we are equal dupes.