The Sun-President: Emmanuel Macron’s Recuperation of French Pomp and Circumstance

Michel Vandenbossche analyses the appearance and behaviour of France’s newly-elected president, Emmanuel Macron.

7 May 2017. A little after half past ten in the evening. On the central courtyard of the Louvre Museum in Paris a gathering of thousands hears the tones of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the “Ode an die Freude”, the anthem of the European Union. Beneath the arch of the museum’s Pavillon de l’Horloge, the silhouette of a man emerges and slowly strides towards I.M. Pei’s famous glass pyramid. The man is Emmanuel Macron, freshly elected president of the French Republic. In the darkness only one spotlight follows the Frenchman on his long walk towards the stage, where he will address his victorious supporters.

One week later, Sunday May 14, Macron is expected to make another walk. One that has been made by dozens of men before him: the crossing of the Palais de l’Elysée’s courtyard towards the steps where the outgoing president is waiting to welcome him to the seat of French power. That Sunday, French television was buzzing with talk of Macron’s stately, sober walk up to the steps of the Elysée, comparing it to the night of his victory. The setting, the music, the majestic pace. This man wants one thing to be very clear: he is going to be the man to give France back its supposedly lost style and dignity.

What Emmanuel Macron understands very well is that in this day and age characterised by a resurgence of personality politics around the world, his every move is being recorded, uploaded and watched over the entire world, and more importantly, over the whole of France. He knows how to let his actions speak for him, to show France what kind of president he is going to be without even the slightest mention of any plans regarding policy.  

And indeed, mere days after the ceremony accompanying the passing of power, French reporters were talking of a renewal of French dignity, a breath of air renewing the pomp and circumstance that had fizzled out during the quinquennat of leftist François Hollande. The socialist president had lacked any sort of charisma. He also made several gestures which, although symbolic, had nonetheless rubbed a lot of Frenchmen the wrong way, such as getting rid of the black-tie dress code at state dinners, or elaborate televised coverage of foreign visits to Paris. In a France that has not been this pessimistic in decades about its place in the wider world – mind, over a third of people voted for the anti-globalist Marine Le Pen – Macron seems to want to reinvigorate the country with a bit of what it has been renowned  for having over the past three odd centuries: pomp and circumstance.

However, this goal of reinstating the presidency with a renewed élan should not be confused with the glitz and glamour of Sarkozy’s tenure at the Elysée. The former president’s – and failed candidate for this election – lifestyle of extravagant partying and his marriage to international model Carla Bruni was not always received well by certain parts of French society. So what the youngest French statesman since Napoleon is looking at is not extravagance, but stately sobriety, a strand of French statesmanship that runs back as far as Bonaparte himself and even further to Louis XIV, the Sun-King.

The comparison between the current French leader and the illustrious king might seem odd at first, but France is known for its rocky relationship with the idea of monarchy. And while the days of a monarchical France are permanently over, the French people are still imbued with a sense of awe and respect at monarchical splendour. Le Figaro baptised this style of public appearances a “nouveau classicisme”. They analyse how everything Macron does here is in perfectly constructed order. The timing, the pace, and most strikingly, the symbolism. Everything he does, both at ceremonial occasions and at other highly televised moments, is meticulously orchestrated, harking back to Louis XIV’s theatrical court life, as well as the imperial splendour of Napoleon’s victory marches in Paris.

Macron’s appearances are meant to be seen as a balancing act of elements, carefully considered to create a maximum effect on the public. The most obvious here of course, was Macron’s choice of the European anthem, rather than La Marseillaise, as soundtrack for his victory march across the Louvre courtyard. The French-ness and uniqueness of the location – the former imperial palace had never before been used as a location for presidential victory speeches – in combination with the European anthem heralds Macron’s ideas about France as a, or perhaps the, pivotal player on the European stage. Interestingly, this combination between a French location and an overtly European choice of music had not been a first in French political spectacle. At the investiture of president François Mitterand in 1981, the same anthem was used as the president entered the Panthéon in Paris.

At the time of writing this article, President Macron is receiving Russian president Putin at the splendid Palace of Versailles, yet another show of ceremonial power. It is still early in his presidency, but so far, we get the sense that Emmanuel Macron is a well-versed orchestrater of elements of the past and the present, of France and of Europe, to surround him and the French presidency with an aura of solemn, almost monarchical, dignity. It is his soft way to shape the vision the French, and the world, have of this country for the better. Only time will tell if he will succeed.

Michel Vandenbossche is a graduate student in Finance at Ghent University.

Photo by thierryleclercq