This week, Emmanuel Macron reinvented himself. In a televised address on the coronavirus epidemic, the man who began his presidency two years ago as a liberal Europeanist reappeared as a Charles de Gaulle-style nationalist. Both the future of France and future of Macron’s presidency rest on how well he negotiates this transformation.
The speech, watched by a record-breaking number of people — some 35 million viewers — was set at the Élysée Palace, against the spare backdrop of a gilded wall and French and European Union flags. Dressed in his habitual blue suit, blue tie and white shirt, Macron spoke for 20 minutes, explaining the precautionary measures the government had already taken and urging the French to obey them. Too many people, he admonished, were still going to markets and parks, restaurants and bars as if “life had not changed.”
But life, he warned, had changed — changed as greatly as it had in times of war. Indeed, this was the speech’s leitmotif: Macron repeated the phrase “We are at war” six times, to underscore not only that France was no longer the same but also that he was no longer the same. “The day after we emerge victorious,” he promised, “will not be like the day before.”
This change becomes clear when we recall Macron’s first two years in power. His persistent effort to scale back the acquis sociaux, or social benefits that French workers had won over the past century, was met by equally persistent resistance. It issued not from France’s shattered and scattered political left, but instead from grass-roots movements like the “yellow vests.” Their weekly protests have faded, but the structural and economic reasons for their disaffection and disconnect remain. His attempt to reform France’s pension system — a series of proposals that included standardizing and raising the retirement age — also resurrected the moribund unions, whose strikes succeeded in paralyzing the nation’s transportation networks for several weeks this past winter.
The government outlasted the strikers, but its victory was Pyrrhic. Even though it retreated on several issues, it ultimately forced through a diluted reform bill with the help of a constitutional article that allows the government to suspend parliamentary debate and enact laws in exceptional circumstances.
Now, that controversy seems to belong to another era. It turns out there are few things like an existential crisis to reboot one’s presidency and persona. In an astonishingly autobiographical passage of his speech, Macron declared: “This period will have taught us a great deal. It has swept away many of our certitudes and convictions, while others will be reexamined. Many things we thought were impossible will happen.”
Against this claim, consider the immediate postwar career of de Gaulle. A conservative Catholic military officer who scorned politics became the leader of a provisional government that adopted a revolutionary political agenda that, among other achievements, nationalized industries and enacted many of the acquis sociaux the unions are now fighting to defend. Like de Gaulle, Macron has pivoted 180 degrees. The Europeanist who was determined to liberalize the economy and rationalize the welfare state has been replaced by a nationalist determined to mobilize the economy and emphasize the need for a resilient welfare system.
This transformation was made clear when Macron affirmed French sovereignty by turning his back on the E.U.’s monetary policy and opening the coffers of the treasury. (On Friday, the E.U. made de jure Macron’s de facto decision by announcing the suspension of its tight budgetary policy.) In essence, Macron insisted that the state — the one largely built by de Gaulle — was ready to pay any price to keep the French safe not just from the viral contagion but also from the spiral of economic disaster. Completing the Gaullist transformation, Macron’s minister of the economy subsequently announced that the government was prepared to nationalize key industries.
If Macron follows through, his speech could prove historic. In terms of style, many commentators have caught echoes of George Clemenceau, who led France during the final years of World War I, while others hear the voice of de Gaulle in his BBC address of June 18, 1940, when he declared the “flame of resistance” still burned in France. While the novel coronavirus is now winning the battle of France, the French would eventually win the war. But as Macron also made clear, victory could be achieved only by a “united” France.
The events that have unfolded since Monday reveal that Macron’s metamorphosis and call to unity have convinced a majority of the French. But there are majorities and there are majorities, and Macron’s is anything but massive. In a poll taken the day after the speech, more than 75 percent found Macron’s words convincing, yet since then a bare majority of French — 54 percent — are satisfied with the government’s handling of the epidemic.
Macron will have to improve on that if he wants to live up to the legacy of de Gaulle.
Robert Zaretsky, who teaches history at the University of Houston, is the author of the forthcoming book “The Subversive Simone Weil.”