Jan 18, 2024

The Netflix President

If Emmanuel Macron’s party botches the European elections in June, the French president will lose control of his three remaining years in office. Thus, he is doing what he does best: putting on a big show.

Emmanuel Macron illustration
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We all know the feeling when watching one of those Netflix series. At the beginning, the plot is captivating, the characters are intriguing. But one third into the second season everything deflates quickly. You start losing interest as the main character keeps on making the same mistakes over again and struggles to evolve much. 

Yet, just when you want to switch off, the series comes up with a big surprise. The story line takes increasingly improbable twists and turns that on the whole disappoint. But you finish the season nonetheless, slightly angry at yourself for having fallen prey to a show engineered for binge-watching.

Emmanuel Macron is a Netflix president. And yes, nearing the half-time mark of his second season, France’s president needs to go heavy on kinetics and put on a spectacle to keep the audience engaged.

The Unreal Prime Minister

Macron’s decision to pick 34-year-old Gabriel Attal as prime minister and right-wing figurehead Rachida Dati as culture minister is a typical Netflix series move.

Newspapers in France and abroad have discussed at length Attal’s appointment, which took everyone by surprise. Can one be a good prime minster at such an age? How daring also to appoint Dati who in 2021 stated that Macron’s Ensemble party was “a party of traitors.” Finally, doesn’t the appointment of Dati, an icon of the Nicolas Sarkozy presidency, suggest that Macron has morphed from a centrist into a right-wing president?

From a policy point-of-view, the new ministerial appointments are close to irrelevant. Whether the prime minister is Attal or Élisabeth Borne (who resigned to make way), Macron calls the shots on policy. Also, this isn’t “Attal’s government.” Macron did not even bother to consult Attal when offering Dati a cabinet job. He told his new ministers on live TV: “You are not only ministers, but soldiers of the second year of (my) term.”

Attal’s mission is thus to symbolize—rather than actually be—a fresh start for Macron’s second, so far botched term. But not only that. “Mini-Macron,” as he is dubbed because he shares the president’s passion for the drama club back at school and firmly flexible political views, is also supposed to avoid a disaster for Ensemble in the European Parliament elections in June.

Tu Quoque Mi Fili

For Macron, the situation is pretty dire. The far-right Rassemblement National (RN) leads the polls with 28 percent, while Ensemble is trailing with only 19 percent. Considering that at the last European elections in 2019, there was only 1 percentage point between the two parties, such a resounding defeat would most likely ring the bells for the beginning of the après-Macron era.

Once big cat Macron is marked as a man of the past, the mice will start to play their own game. Those in Macron’s camp eyeing a presidential bid, such as former Prime Minister Édouard Phillippe, would know that they have to distance themselves from the president if they want to have a chance in 2027. Macron’s real and perceived power, already seriously dented by the lost parliamentary elections in 2022, would erode even further.

Macron needs a good result to stay in control of his coalition. And Attal is his best card. Contrary to the technocratic Borne, Attal is a strong debater who is able to draw crowds. The former education minister’s approval ratings stand at 37 percent, while  Macron’s languish at 24 percent. And: The man whose signature policy was to ban observant Muslim girls from wearing the abaya, a robe-like overdress, in schools, appeals to right-wing voters.

Politics of Symbols

The majority of France’s electorate has always been conservative. Whoever occupies the center-right vote is in a good position to win. But in recent years, the center ground has moved even more to the right. So, Attal’s appointment is being accompanied by a programmatic shift to the right.

The president can’t promise big tax cuts as the state coffers are empty. He also doesn’t have the majority in parliament to push through new big economic reforms. So, what does he offer? A politics of symbols.

Macron has declared that his new goal is that “France stays France”—a slogan far-right Éric Zemmour once used. He has even rhetorically referenced the conspiracy theory of the “great replacement.” Macron told his new minsters at their first meeting, “Your mission is to prevent the great effacement of France in a tumultuous world” before adding a line that every Netflix script writer would cut for being too corny: “If you think you are not capable, leave this room.”

Macron is taking on the far-right narrative that France is caught up in some sort of existential struggle. Many people are “lost” and France’s society needs more identity-building rituals and to be “rearmed,” Macron says.

Paroles, Paroles, Paroles

In this week’s press conference, which lasted for two-and-a-half hours, Macron detailed what this “rearmament” entails. Getting primary school pupils to sing the Marseillaise, France’s national anthem; test the reintroduction of school uniforms; and make (art) history and theater courses obligatory in high school, so that children learn about French culture. To fight flagging birth rates, Macron wants to fight infertility and introduce a more generous, but time-limited parental leave. He also wants to further deregulate the economy to boost growth.

Identity, demography, and deregulation—a classic right-wing tryptic. Will it work?

Macron can govern by decree in many areas. He can at times seek deals with the opposition in parliament. In any case, Macron hopes that by showing that he still has plenty of plans, voters don’t desert him entirely.

The problem: In his nearly seven years in office, Macron has promised the French at least as many fresh beginnings—from a new inclusive politics after the Yellow Vest protests of 2018 to making his second term all about climate change in the 2022 presidential election. Each time, he got someone surprising to join his government to underline his promise.

The Julliard Test

The French have seen this show before. But if they don’t believe it, does it at least entertain them?

The late historian Jacques Julliard once argued that for a French president to be successful, he had to offer “political spectacle.” Nothing makes French people more nervous than ennui. Only Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterrand knew how to distract the French from their everyday life with their sauciness, Julliard wrote in 2005.

Spectacle, if you will, is what the French get in return for having little say themselves in politics. If you can’t really choose the film, it better be entertaining.

Now, chances are that as with de Gaulle and Mitterrand, the French have grown tired of Macron’s one-man show. But how do Netflix series manage to go beyond two installments? Supporting characters move to the center stage. Macron’s survival is now in Attal’s hands.

Joseph de Weck is INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY’s Paris columnist and author of Emmanuel Macron. The revolutionary president.

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