Macron's New Republic of Virtue

Macron's New Republic of Virtue
AP Photo/Olivier Matthys
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Suddenly this summer a young Frenchman, a virtual unknown on the global stage only three years ago, became the Western world’s great liberal hope. The successive presidential and parliamentary victories of Emmanuel Macron and his Republique En Marche have lifted not just the hopes of a nation long burdened with déclinisme, but also the spirits of European and American observers who feared France was the next domino in the seemingly relentless march of populism and authoritarianism.

Inevitably, commentators have looked to the past to explain the present moment. On this side of the Atlantic, parallels have been made between the youthful and charismatic Macron and our own John F. Kennedy, while on the other side he has been measured against the lofty likes of Charles de Gaulle and Napoleon Bonaparte. (I myself have put such comparisons to print, both in RealClearWorld and in other publications.)

In light of recent events though, another towering but also glowering historical figure seems more apt. Unlike de Gaulle, Bonaparte, and even Kennedy, this individual hasn’t a single street or monument named after him in Paris, and few biographers have taken up the task of writing his life. Given the terrifying events orchestrated by Maximilien Robespierre, this general neglect is understandable. And yet, certain aspects of Robespierre’s ideas and ideals bear an odd resemblance to those now brandished by France’s new president.

Behind Macron’s rise was the festering of scandals in French political life. Not surprisingly, the term dégagisme, shorthand for a desire to “throw the bums out” and first coined in the heat of Tunisia’s Arab Spring movement, became a popular rallying cry for both the hard left and hard right during the presidential and legislative campaigns. What other fate could be reserved for the traditional parties, be they the conservatives or the socialists? After all, were they not led on the right by the self-obsessed Nicolas Sarkozy and self-righteous Francois Fillon, and on the left by the risible Jerome Cahuzac and repellent Dominique Strauss-Kahn, all accused of sundry financial and personal shenanigans?

When it came to the grind of running for elective office, Macron was untried, and thus untainted. He promised during his campaign to clean up politics -- a vow he reiterated in his sober victory speech. With the conviction of a true believer, he announced the “renewal of public life would start tomorrow.” From his first day in office, Macron declared, the “moralization of public life” would be the “basis for my decisions.” For good measure, he added that he would act with “humility, devotion, and determination.” Among the proposed laws are the prohibition for parliamentary deputies to hire family members, a limit of three successive terms of office and the ineligibility for political office (up to 10 years) for elected officials who have run afoul of the standards of "probity." (No doubt the last law will require a great deal of fine-tuning.)

Since the revolution, France has tried on and cast off four republics of varying size and shape. Only the First Republic, though, was tailored to the imperatives of political transparency and civic virtue. Midwifed by the sans-culottes of 1792 and buried by the self-crowned Napoleon in 1804, the First Republic invokes the inevitable images from the best of times and the worst of times: popular violence and people’s armies; revolutionary tribunals and “national razors” (guillotines); Sydney Carton and Madame Desfarges. Most importantly, the First Republic summons the image of “The Incorruptible,” Maximilien Robespierre.

Sixty years into the Fifth Republic -- the constitutional regime de Gaulle built in 1958 -- Robespierre’s spirit can again be detected. It is not, mind you, because Melenchon has become the Incorruptible’s doughtiest defender, most recently laying into the video game Assassin’s Creed for, in Melenchon’s words, its “monstrous” portrayal of our “national liberator” Robespierre. Instead, there is more than a whiff of the Incorruptible’s presence in Macron. There are, of course, superficial resemblances: Both men hail from northern France (Robespierre from Arras, Macron from neighboring Amiens) and both men were carried overnight by forces far greater than themselves from obscurity to celebrity. To boot, Macron, like Robespierre, is a self-described revolutionary -- he did, after all, title his campaign book “Révolution.”

More importantly, though, the two seem joined by the ideals of republican virtue and transparency. Leaning heavily on the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Robespierre promised collective regeneration through individual virtue, an idea akin to Macron’s promise of national renewal. Fusing a selfless dedication to the res publica to a selfish conviction of one’s inner purity, this modern hybrid of virtue would inoculate citizens against vice and venality. Robespierre insisted that virtue reflected not just the goodness of the individual, but also the “soul of the republic,” whose task is to “purify moral standards.”

Of course, Robespierre also believed that the Terror, which became the order of the day in 1794, was an emanation of such virtue. No need to recount the litany of horrors that flowed from this belief, just as there is no need to remark that Macron’s government has no plans to build a guillotine in the middle of the Place de la Concorde (formerly known as Place de la Révolution).

The Perils of Morality Politics

But with last week’s eviction of four ministers from Macron’s barely formed government, the question of virtue in political life has again taken center stage in Paris. Three of the ministers -- Francois Bayrou (Justice), Sylvie Goulard (Defense), and Marielle de Sarnez (European Affairs) -- not only held major portfolios, but also held leading positions with MoDem, the centrist political party that threw its support behind Macron during the presidential race. The “resignations” were announced shortly after news stories revealed that MoDem had more or less stolen from Pierre to pay Paul. Party members, it is alleged, used funds earmarked exclusively for European Union assistants to pay for their own staff members. For the record, Bayrou has loudly rebuffed the accusations.

On the scale of political malfeasance, the accusation against MoDem mostly amounts to a MoWhat? It certainly pales in significance to the Penelopegate scandal engulfing Fillon, which involves accusations of personal enrichment, and the many campaign financing scandals sticking like tar to Sarkozy. (Marine Le Pen’s National Front has also been charged with a similar sleight-of-hand with money sprouting from Brussels, but she and her vice president and partner Louis Aliot have refused to cooperate with investigators.) Still, even the shadow of moral laxity proved too great a weight to bear, especially as Bayrou had claimed first dibs on the legislation for moralizing political life. As a result the government, barely two weeks into its tenure, already found itself posting want ads.

Few tears were shed at the Elysee over Bayrou’s departure. A veteran politician who had fallen short in three previous presidential campaigns, Bayrou did not mix easily with the young Jacobins committed to their leader’s version of revolution. Just as Robespierre, either through sincerity or duplicity, had weaponized virtue as a means to power, so too has Macron. To replace the departed MoDem leaders, Macron has, by and large, appointed technocrats. Inevitably, they will be more vulnerable under this new reign of virtue by, well, the virtue of not being affiliated with a party. As the end of the First Republic reminds us, such concentration of power probably does not bode well. While terror is not the order of the day, error may well be.

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