World News

Let Them Eat on Fancy Plates: Emmanuel Macron’s New China

Posted June 14, 2018 7:29 p.m. EDT

PARIS — The French president’s fondness for the gilt-edged aspects of his job — the fancy backdrops in chateaus, his big makeup bills, the proximity to the wealthy — is no longer a secret to his countrymen.

Emmanuel Macron dislikes being called “president of the rich,” but of all the labels affixed to him, it is the one he can’t shake.

A dust-up over the cost of the new presidential dinner service is unlikely to help.

Like presidents before him, Macron is ordering his 1,200 plates from a porcelain factory in Sèvres that is heavily subsidized by the state and has supplied France’s rulers since the 18th century.

At a moment when Macron was seen complaining in a government video that French welfare spending costs “a truckload of cash,” those fancy new plates from the Manufacture de Sèvres have caused a small ruckus.

This will not be not the plain white china to be found at Ikea. Each plate requires “at least five hours of work — it’s all made by hand” by state-paid artisans, Romane Sarfati, the factory’s director-general, said in an interview Thursday. The design is based on drawings of the Élysée Palace, the seat of the French presidency, and every Élysée dinner guest will sit down to an individualized plate.

The ministry of culture is paying $58,000 to the winning artists. But that doesn’t cover the cost of the plates themselves.

“There’s no number because you can’t calculate it as though it were a business,” Serfaty said.

That hasn’t stopped some of the French press from gleefully speculating, led by Le Canard Enchaîné, the ever-impertinent satirical weekly. It came up with a total of nearly $600,000.

Faux controversy, said the Élysée. It said that there was nothing out of the ordinary about the expenditure, and that it would not inflate state budgets — a sensitive point for Macron, with Brussels looking over his shoulder all the time.

For Sèvres, “the subsidy remains the same: 4 million euros,” a spokesman for the president said Thursday. “The order doesn’t represent any additional cost,” he said.

Serfaty was somewhat less dismissive.

“One can understand why the French might be a little astonished, at a moment of budgetary constraints, that the president would make such an order from Sèvres,” she said. “But you’ve got to understand what’s at stake. He represents France and the French. At dinners of state he must be in a position to represent France, and the French tradition of art de vivre. And since the 18th century Sèvres, has been its incarnation.”

The political costs of the great plate controversy are unlikely to be high. Attention in the press has been muted.

A majority of voters on the left already distrust Macron for his market-oriented reforms, which are aimed at making a dent in France’s near-permanent 10 percent unemployment rate.

But the president has all but won his monthslong battle with the country’s rail unions — Parliament passed his big trains initiative this week — and his majority in the National Assembly continues to be obedient. As a train strike drags on, public support for it has plummeted.

More serious for the French president are the increasing doubts of heavyweight economists who signed on early to his maverick movement, and are now putting some distance between themselves and him. Three of them sent a reproachful “secret” memo to the Élysée, published last weekend in Le Monde.

The economists were worried, they said, about “the image of an executive power that is indifferent to social issues.”

They also said that the “liberating ambitions” of the president’s 2017 campaign platform, which stressed American-style equality of opportunity, not outcome, “are now lost on a growing number of our fellow citizens, including some of the most fervent supporters of 2017.”