World News

That’s ‘Mr. President’ to You, Macron Scolds France

Posted June 19, 2018 7:22 p.m. EDT

PARIS — President Emmanuel Macron of France knows how to turn a phrase and has done so at the United Nations, the U.S. Congress and a memorial for a gendarme killed after swapping places with a hostage.

But when he meets a regular French citizen it seems Macron cannot stop himself from preaching about the need to behave better, work harder and take charge of one’s own future.

The latest example came Monday when he was attending the commemoration of a famous speech by France’s wartime leader in 1940, Gen. Charles de Gaulle, who called on French citizens to join the resistance to the Nazis.

As local junior high school students pushed forward to a rope line to shake hands with the president, one ninth-grade boy called out with a touch of bravado, “How’s it going, Manu?,” using a nickname for Macron.

Macron paused and responded sternly: “No, no, no.”

The boy immediately retreated. “Sorry, Mr. President,” he said.

But Macron, rather than accepting the apology, seemed to want to hammer home his point. “Look, you can act like a clown, but today is about The Marseillaise and the Partisans’ song,” he said, referring to France’s national anthem and to another song adopted by the French resistance to the Nazis.

“So you call me Mr. President of the Republic or sir,” Macron said, and the boy responded: “Yes, sir.”

Television channels and Twitter users took notice, although the encounter was hardly remarkable. Well before his election, Macron acquired a penchant for sounding dismissive and unsympathetic when talking to unemployed people, labor union members and retirees. French news organizations — regional newspapers as well as national ones and newsmagazines — have taken to publishing lists of his confrontations.

When he changed the labor code to reduce the power of unions and make it easier to hire and fire people, he derided those who opposed his changes as “lazybones, cynics and extremists.” He told strikers upset over a factory closing in a rural area with few jobs that they should stop “messing around” and move to where the jobs are. And he has said that the government “spends a truckload of cash on social programs, but the people are still poor.”

But beyond his seeming impatience with working-class French citizens and their views of his reforms, he has shown a tendency to portray himself as a “Jupiterian” president, or the president as monarch. It is an image of the French presidency as an august office, above the fray, that was favored by de Gaulle and almost every other president until Macron’s immediate predecessor, François Hollande.

Macron also aspires to be a postmodern president, the self-appointed harbinger of France’s future, yet his tone and language, which alternates between elevated intellectual conceits and provocative street talk, can sound scornful, even patronizing.

From Macron’s point of view, he is just making it clear where he stands; it is up to those listening to decide whether they want to join him.

“Macron is part of a generation that knows how to juggle between different modes of communicating but always with the intention of conveying his message,” said Jérôme Fourquet, a longtime observer of the French presidency and the director of opinion and business strategies for IFOP, a major polling organization.

In Fourquet’s view, Macron can sound like a U.S. politician when he tells the French that they have to be willing to go where the jobs are and be resourceful and entrepreneurial. But such a message can come across as oddly dissonant because, unlike U.S. politicians, he rarely expresses empathy and has no qualms about sounding like a morals teacher.

He is also still very French in his desire to have everyone treat him with deference. “There’s this Anglo-Saxon culture that he mixes with the French culture of the meritocracy,” Fourquet said.

“The meritocracy is, ‘I have studied, thus, I deserve to be where I am,’ and so broadly speaking, that means the world is divided between those who know, who explain to those who do not know,” Fourquet added. Macron, who has a tense relationship with the press, appears to like using encounters with the public to showcase his agenda without the intercession of journalists. His official YouTube channel even features videos of such events. One, involving older citizens complaining about a tax increase, says “I will explain everything to you” in the description.

So far his approval ratings, which in many polls hover around 40 percent, are still above those of his two most recent predecessors. What is different is that the divide between his supporters, who are drawn from the business world, and his opponents, who are more likely to be workers or administrators, appear to follow class lines, which was not so much the case with his predecessors.

The result for Macron is that he is seen by many as “the president of the rich,” a phrase his most vocal opponent, far-left politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon, often invokes.

It is also striking that even when he has clearly beaten a perceived opponent, Macron cannot stop himself from making sure he has entirely humbled the person.

That was the case Monday, when the ninth-grader nodded and apologized twice but learned that Macron still was not finished putting him in his place.

“You need to do things the right way. Even if you want to lead a revolution one day, you’ve first got to earn a diploma and learn how to feed yourself, OK?” Macron said as he delivered a friendly, if patronizing, pat on the boy’s arm. “And then you can give lessons to others.”