What’s the difference between Emmanuel Macron and Marco Rubio?
One is a neocon interventionist, corporate puppet incapable of talking in anything other than robotic platitudes, who represents a disingenuous attempt to put a fresh face on the political establishment.
The other is a Senator for the American State of Florida, who apparently ran for President in 2016.
But that’s not what you’d think if you used the BBC to inform yourself about Emmanuel Macron. The aim of this blog is to uncover the reality disguised by the BBC’s “framing” of Macron, using French sources throughout to get as close as possible to the reality on the ground (translations and paraphrases provided).
The BBC presents Macron as charismatic
Here they’re not quite the Famous Five, but tonight France is finally getting to know the leading candidates who would be President. Televised debate involving them began a couple of hours ago. There are two politicians from the far Left, plus Marine Le Pen from the far Right, Francois Fillon, the embattled nominee of the center Right, and Emmanuel Macron, the charismatic front runner in the opinion polls the others will be keen to crush.
Sean Lay, BBC Radio 4 The World Tonight, 20 March 2017 (my emphasis)
The BBC’s Sean Lay says here that Macron is “charismatic.” But what evidence is there that he deserves this accolade? It can’t be opinion poll numbers: many very charismatic politicians are unsuccessful in attracting voters (as was the late British MP Tony Benn) while many very dull ones are consistent vote winners (think Angela Merkel). Charisma is a quality you have as a human being, regardless of any success you may have as a politician. In calling Macron “charismatic,” the BBC presents him as an attractive person, as an inspiring individual and public speaker, as having some kind of “x factor” or “pixie dust.”
But is Macron charismatic? See for yourself …
Very few people in the UK, including the BBC’s listeners, will have had the (dubious) pleasure of listening to an Emmanuel Macron speech. Because I don’t want them to miss out I include a clip of the charismatic Macron, right here:
If anyone can listen to more than 2 minutes of this before falling asleep they’re a better person than me. An Emmanuel Macron speech is dry, abstract, bureaucratic torture. The sort of speech that makes a local authority committee meeting feel like an Iggy Pop concert. The French have an expression for this: “langue de bois” meaning “wooden tongue.” Compare Macron’s speech to this offering from Marco Rubio and you will see the same constipated, unimaginative, leaden, insincere discourse:
Not only does Macron resemble Rubio in his stultifying, pulse stopping rhetoric. Like Rubio, Macron is a globalist, a neocon interventionist and a supporter of the establishment. Like Macron at the moment, Rubio received positive coverage from the BBC back in 2015, for example in Correspondents Look Ahead (where the “BBC’s top international news correspondents look ahead to the major developments”), in which Rubio was a “popular” pick as a Republican dark horse. And of course, like Rubio, Macron is fresh faced and young, and therefore a perfect vehicle for giving people the impression of something new and different, when in fact it’s the same old sh*t, as we shall see.
The BBC presents Macron as popular
Now the 39 year old centrist candidate for the French Presidency, Emmanuel Macron, is a popular man. He joked recently that he had a problem in politics, ‘there are lots of people backing me.’
Razia Iqbal, BBC Radio 4 The World Tonight, 30 March 2017
Razia Iqbal, presenter of the World Tonight, states that Macron is “popular” without specifying why. With whom is he popular? He’s popular with the establishment, as we shall see, and seems very popular with the BBC. But, on top of that, this vague phrase makes it seem like he’s a popular guy, that people like him. The BBC implies some kind of genuine and widespread enthusiasm for Macron as a candidate.
But is Macron really popular? “Non.”
According to the polls at the time this statement was made, Macron was the front runner in the race, but only with around one quarter of the vote. This hardly constitutes widespread approval. And many are voting Macron because they don’t want Marine Le Pen to become President, not because they particularly like him.
There is no evidence that Macron is likeable or attractive as a person, or that the majority of those voting for him do so with any great enthusiasm. Calling him “popular” is just more pixie dust to make Macron look good.
BBC presents Macron as anti-establishment
It’s debate time in France, the first of three presidential debates today, we’ll see all of the main candidates sitting down together, including the far Right leader Marine Le Pen and the centrist, sort of non-politician challenger Emmanuel Macron.
Justin Webb, BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, 20 March 2017
So according to the BBC’s purportedly neutral presenter, Emmanuel Macron is a “sort of non-politician.” What on earth does that mean? Let’s leave Webb’s clumsy “sort of” for later and examine his claim that Macron is a “non-politician.” This (strangely, many people will feel) creates a parallel between Macron and the populist winner of the United States Presidential election, Donald Trump, who had never held office before his victory. Trump, the UK Brexit campaign and Macron’s opponent in the French general election, “the far Right leader Marine Le Pen,” have all successfully tapped into a generalised dissatisfaction with establishment politics. Presenting Macron as a “non-politician” makes it seem as though he represents the sort of break with the political establishment that is increasingly popular with voters. This image was reinforced the morning after the first round of the election, when Nick Robinson kicked the Today Programme off with these words:
French voters have rejected the parties which have run the country for decades, and chosen two outsiders: Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen for the final run-off to become President.
24 April 2017 (my emphasis)
According to the BBC, Macron is not just a non-politician but an outsider, suggesting he is representing a group of people on the fringes of politics, the people forgotten by the mainstream political establishment. Sounds promising.
But is Macron really anti-establishment? “Non.”
Why might Webb have said “sort of”? Well, for a start, because Macron was in fact Ministre de l’Économie or Minister of the Economy, equivalent to Chancellor of the Exchequer in the UK or Secretary of State of the Treasury in the United States, for the hugely unpopular sitting President, François Hollande. So he was a politician until he resigned in August 2016 to launch his purportedly new party (or “movement,” as he prefers) “En Marche.” In effect, the guy had only been a “non-politician” for all of eight months when Webb made his comment, and he spent those eight months – campaigning for election! Before being appointed Minister, Macron was a graduate of the Ecole Nationale Supérieure, which churns out virtually all of France’s politicians and top civil servants, and then went on to work for the tax authority and Rothschilds investment bank. His background is as establishment as you can find.
Moreover, Macron is backed by the business establishment, in the form of the CEOs of France’s biggest companies such as Xavier Niel (Free broadband), Vincent Bolloré (of the eponymous Bolloré conglomerate) and Bernard Arnaud (of luxury group LVMH). He is also championed by France’s leading public intellectuals, such as former European Bank for Reconstruction and Development director, guru of former Socialist President François Mittérand and advocate of world government Jacques Attali, or neocon intervention apologist Bernard-Henri Lévy. We even have a rare businessman-intellectual, Alain Minc, former adviser to politicians including Prime Minister Édouard Balladur and President Nicholas Sarkozy, as well as CEO of many leading French companies, who has also, unsurprisingly, thrown his weight behind Macron.
Leaving aside the voices of big business and establishment intellectuals, it is clear that Macron is the candidate of the political establishment. Former Socialist interior minister Manuel Valls (who is much criticised for his weak handling of Islamic terrorism) has backed Macron. François Hollande decided not to stand, leaving the field open for his former protégé, whom he subsequently backed (rather than the official Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon).
And, of course, Macron is the darling of the ultimate establishment entity, the EU:
Macron is the establishment’s candidate, without a doubt.
“Sort of non-politician”?
But let’s return to this curious phrase “sort of non-politician challenger.” It is problematic from a purely logical perspective. Calling Macron a “non-politician” is, on the face of it, to define him according to a binary opposition between politicians and non-politicians. According to this framework, you’re either a politician or a non-politician, and so if you are, or ever have been, a politician, then, well, you can’t be a non-politician, logically speaking. You can’t be half non-pregnant. Of course, as we have seen, Macron is a politician and a member of the establishment through and through. Therefore, if Webb were to just say he was a non-politician it wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny. So, in order not to look completely ridiculous (vainly some might say), Webb awkwardly qualifies his statement with “sort of.” But this “sort of” simply amplifies the contradiction. It makes Macron the unique occupant of an odd position on the political spectrum, that of a non-politician who isn’t quite a non-politician. A quasi-non-politician, a non-non-politician. A kind of double negative identity. What Webb is doing – behind this contradiction – is, of course, attributing to Macron the positives of a non-establishment non-politician challenger, while allowing him to retain all the insider background, support and above all consensus policies of an archi-typical establishment politician. In so doing, Webb advertises Macron as a sort of “diet ” or “caffeine free politician” – all the elite, establishment policies of a politician, without the negative connotations (compare, “all the taste of Coke without the calories”).
The BBC presents Macron as a candidate for change
This was, above all, a vote for change. The candidates of both of France’s establishment parties swept aside in favor of two very different political outsiders.
Lucy Williamson, BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, 24 April 2017
But does Macron offer change? “Non.”
If voting Macron really means voting for change, as Williamson states, then he has to be promising to change something when he comes to power. Yet, if you look at his programme, it is one of continuity with France’s political mainstream. He is in favor of the European Union: no change. He wants to protect the welfare state: mom and apple pie. He wants to liberalise France’s employment laws: politicians have promised to do that in France for decades (as did the late Jacques Chirac in 2004). One of his “change” proposals in terms of labor laws, to withdraw unemployment benefit from anyone refusing two job offers (an unlikely event in a country like France with anemic job creation), is identical to that of former President Nicholas Sarkozy:
Macron, like politicians centuries before him, offers positive ideas which sound new but in reality amount to nebulous and empty chimera, as here his wish (expressed using the English term) that France become “a start-up nation” (“une start-up nation”):
Macron offers no change whatsoever. The BBC is just parroting Macron’s propaganda.
How does the BBC present Macron as an outsider offering change? Le “framing.”
Jon Humphrys: “The people of France have been asked what they think of their established political parties and they have answered ‘not very much,’ and so, for the first time in almost 60 years, neither of the two big parties will be in the final run-off for the Presidential election next month. It’s as though we had ruled out both Conservative and Labour parties and said we want someone else. And the someone else the French have chosen could scarcely be more different. The favorite to become President is Emmanuel Macron, an independent figure who’s never run for office before …”
James Naughtie: “In that sense France is breaking with the past, in the way that Donald Trump did in the United States. But it’s true, you know, that although Emmanuel Macron is an outsider in one respect – his party “En Marche” did not exist a year ago – it would be simplistic to call him an outsider entirely. After all, he is very strongly in favor of a stronger place for France in a strong EU, he is a, an advocate for more globalisation, he wants a liberal economy, and he says that all he is doing is representing what he feels is a longing in the French people for a break with the established political parties, the Parisian elite on both sides of the Right and Left which has been running France for as long as anyone can remember.“
BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, 24 April 2017 (my emphasis)
I have transcribed presenter Jon Humphrys’ introduction to James Naughtie’s report, followed by part of the report itself. What is spectacular here is the way, within a few minutes, the BBC is able to say such contradictory things while maintaining the impression of a coherent message. Humphrys introduces Macron to the discussion with a superlative: he “could scarcely be more different” from the political establishment. If we are to take Humphrys’ statement seriously, at face value, then it should be almost impossible to be more different from an establishment politician than Macron. There should be virtually no area, whether in his background, his personality or his policies, in which one could be more radical, more distinctive than him. If Emmanuel Macron were a Top Trumps card, it would score 99/100 in the “difference from other politicians” category.
Naughtie starts his report by supporting this narrative, saying that Macron, like Trump, represents a break from the past. But he then goes on to categorically contradict Humphrys’ statement, by offering a list of Macron policies which could scarcely be more similar to those of the politicians from whom he is supposed to offer a radical departure. Indeed Naughtie says “it would be simplistic to call him an outsider entirely.” Where Humphrys had him almost 100% outsider, Naughtie is going in the opposite direction, stressing that Macron is not “entirely,” 100%, outsider – he contains a significant amount of establishment. The two statements are contradictory in terms of basic logic. Humphrys and Naughtie have just stamped two very different lists of ingredients on the enigmatic packet which is Emmanuel Macron.
It is in connection with that contradiction that Naughtie does something quite spectacular at the end of the statement quoted above. After listing the policies which he (Naughtie) acknowledges are establishment policies, he says that Macron believes he “is representing what he feels is a longing in the French people for a break with the established political parties.” But hang on a second: how can you both incarnate the views of establishment political parties and represent a longing for a break with them? What on earth is Naughtie on about?
The key word here is represent. In artistic terms, to represent something is to create an image of it, whether in literature, painting or any other art form. And that image can create the subjective impression of the thing it represents without representing it accurately or faithfully, like a Turner sunset or 19th century Russia in a Dostoievsky novel. Whether Naughtie consciously meant to use the term in this way (I doubt it), he betrayed the mechanism according to which the BBC “represents” Macron as an anti-establishment change candidate. Macron does not offer a real rupture with the establishment but only a representation, an image, a symbol of a subjective longing for such a rupture. But this image is deceptive, it’s a form of trompe-l’œuil (this deceptive quality is in fact what prompts Socrates to banish poets from his ideal city in the Republic). The solution to the contradiction in the BBC’s description is this: it would be hard to be more different from the establishment than the image Macron projects of himself (with the BBC’s complicity). But it is only the image which is different: in substance, in reality, it would be hard to be any more similar to the establishment than Macron. He is the very embodiment of “the Parisian elite on both sides of the Right and Left which has been running France for as long as anyone can remember.”
Humphrys encourages the audience to think of Macron as new by trumpeting the fact that “for the first time in almost 60 years, neither of the two big parties will be in the final run-off for the Presidential election.” The problem is, Macron is simply a reheated version of those parties in a shiny new box.
The manipulation of these contradictions by the BBC, in order to convey the desired representation of Macron, employs a psychological device called “framing.” Humphrys and Naughtie’s discussion opens with a strong, simple image of Macron as radically, almost unambiguously, different. As the first thing the audience hears, this becomes a “frame,” which sets the tone and colors anything said subsequently, as Kahneman and Tversky demonstrate in numerous experiments (see Thinking, Fast and Slow, p. 88). The deep rooted human instinct to look for a simple narrative then encourages the mind to ignore or attribute less weight to statements which contradict the framing statement (see chapter 5). The same duo also showed that the mind is better able to retain unambiguous, “black and white” facts than nuanced, “on one hand and the other” statements (p. 330). Therefore, the audience for this discussion’s perception of Macron will be dominated by the idea of him, framed by Humphrys, as a radical outsider.
The clever part is that the audience may have also heard evidence (in this bulletin and elsewhere) that Macron is an insider. By including an acknowledgement of this establishment complicity, the discussion helps to exorcise any discomfort the audience may have felt at this contradiction. The establishment complicity is duly noted, that box is ticked, but – despite that acknowledgement – Macron is still presented as anti-establishment. Only by making an intellectual effort, of the kind we have been making in our analysis of this discussion, do you notice how problematic the illogicality of this contradiction is. Kahneman also performed experiments demonstrating the importance which the last thing an audience hears has on its retention of an entire piece (see chapter 36). Naughtie taps into this by following his acknowledgement of Macron’s establishment policies with the image (representation) of Macron as opposing that establishment. This device ensures that the BBC has covered itself in case of criticism (because it has duly acknowledged Macron’s establishment policies). But the image of Macron taken away by the audience will be dominated by the opening and closing frames, which consolidate the myth of Macron as an outsider offering something new.
Why does the BBC do this?
Of course, the BBC’s coverage is not going to influence the outcome of the election in France (try as it might). But this description of Macron validates a wider narrative of which the BBC is a supporter. It presents the alternative to anti-European, anti-globalist and anti-establishment politics in a positive light. That positive light will, so the BBC hopes, enhance the perception of other like minded people and movements, for example opponents of Brexit in the UK. It also creates a confusion in the minds of people who are fed up with business as usual politics, by making an ultra-establishment candidate like Macron seem like some sort of anti-establishment upstart. In so doing, it helps perpetrate the myth that this positive image of a young, popular, charismatic, independent guy represents a genuine outsider, genuine change – when in fact he is just a different form of packaging for the same establishment politics. The perception the BBC attempts to give people of Macron is a fiction, and these fictions work unconsciously in molding people’s opinions on important political questions in the UK.
In the interests of fairness though I should say there is one thing about Macron which genuinely makes him different from other politicians: he’s never won an election. Whether or not he wins the upcoming second round of the 2017 Presidential election, his campaign will have been based on an illusion of change, and his Presidency (if he wins) will do nothing to fix the problems which make the demand for change in France so pressing. Sadly, the BBC’s complicity in this illusion has led it to fail in its duty as an impartial broadcaster.