COVID-19 and Macron’s “Society of Free Individuals”

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October 16, 2020 by Andrew W M Smith

One of the things I enjoy about teaching Contemporary History and Politics is the sense of a subject in motion. Sometimes, however, that motion can take you by surprise. On the morning of Wednesday 14th October, I was asked by France24 to watch French President Emmanuel Macron’s evening broadcast about his government’s approach to tackling the COVID-19 crisis and provide some instant analysis afterwards. I hadn’t, however, anticipated that I’d have to rewrite the following day’s lecture on ‘the individual in politics’ on the basis of the President’s comments.

The headlines of the evening were his discussion of curfews (9 major metropolitan areas will have 9pm-6am curfews enforced by fines for a minimum of 4 weeks), and the relaunch of a new tracing app as the spur for refreshing the beleaguered national test and trace programme. One of the journalists interviewing him, Anne-Sophie Lapix (the anchor of 20h on France2), asked the President if he was “infantilizing” the French people. Insistently, he denied this, offering instead the phrase “responsibilization”, which became a theme of the discussion. Another allied phrase was his repeated use of concitoyens (fellow citizens). Macron asserted that France’s COVID response could not simply be taken by government and imposed from above. Indeed, throughout the interview, the President repeatedly made clear that the government would not legislate around specific points like limits on private gatherings (the ‘private’ framing was challenged by the Conseil Constitutionelle in May) or on travel (and his transport minister had indicated the day before this was unlikely – encouraging French people to go on holiday for Toussaint in November).

Beyond the specifics of legislative measures, however, the theme of concitoyens was most clearly indicated in a slightly exasperated but politically resonant statement from the President that:

“Nous sommes en train de réapprendre à être pleinement une nation. On s’était progressivement habitués à être une société d’individus libres. Nous sommes une nation de citoyens solidaires”.

“We are relearning what it truly means to be a nation. We have gotten used to living as a society of free individuals. We are a nation of united citizens.”

As Macron meant it, I think, he wanted to move away from an atomised understanding of society and refocus on the need for a collective response to the COVID crisis. However, the resonant phrase itself began to echo. On hearing the phrase, I immediately thought of Norbert Elias’ book which shares the title The Society of Individuals. His late cold-war discussion of changing emphases of individual and group identity – the “We-I balance”, as he calls it – acknowledged new forms of integration between the individual, the state, and global currents of development. In particular, he talked about the distortive effect of threats to all mankind, such as nuclear weapons, on our individual and group identities, though does not, unfortunately, anticipate the threat of a pandemic to the “society of individuals”.[1]

Of course, the concept of the united nation as evoked by Macron has a far longer history in Republican discourse, from the Revolution and the battlefield of Valmy to the present day. This cohabitation of the free individual in a collective democratic project is a central tenet of universalist discourse (and I always think of this excellent article by Naomi Schor in Yale French Studies when parsing this). Discussions of this discourse in French democracy (and more widely) have assumed a tone of crisis for some time, however.[2] Relevant to critiques of Macronisme is Marcel Gauchet’s depiction of the “growing oligarchisation” of democracy, and the state’s role of maintaining a global (or universal) view while negotiating in the domestic political market with strongly expressed particularist interests.[3] Here the tensions of Macron’s comparison between free individuals and united citizens gains greater force. There is something of an evolving position on communautaurisme which marks out Macron’s rightwards lean since his election, especially following an intervention at the start of October targeting “separatism”. As Emile Chabal notes in his Divided Republic, that divisive discourse has historically been fuelled by twin motors: developing counter-narratives of the state (as mentioned in Macron’s “separatism” speech) and an “unusually dystopic reading  of Anglo-American multiculturalism”.[4] This second theme of (real or imagined) international tension suggests a further challenge in conceptualising national responses to a global pandemic, as explored by Adam Tooze in Foreign Policy by looking at the work of Ulrich Beck. To use Beck’s terms, Macron is skating between the cosmopolitan micro-politics of mobilising local responses to global challenges and the ‘retro-politics’ of puffed-up state narratives and ‘neo-Republican’ imagery. While emphasising the duties of concitoyens (and here we might substitute the ‘cosmopolitan’ of Beck’s model for the ‘metropolitan’ of the French state’s COVID guidelines), he is also seeking to reaffirm the capacity and legitimacy of the state to direct this response and his own role at its head.

If you want to see the phrase above, you can skip to 2m44s in this video clip

Macron’s critics have been keen to point to over-stretching government power and attempts to deflect from his own mismanagement. Likewise, some critics have jumped on this phrase about a “society of free individuals” such as Florian Philippot (formerly of the FN, now Les Patriotes) who recorded a response video decrying the “scandalous phrase”. In that video (after a recruitment drive for his movement), he declares “perverse” any contrast between liberty and solidarity and argues that Macron is trying to turn French people into “perfect slaves of the oligarchy”. In a discussion piece from May 2020, Professor Cécile Laborde argued that infringements on liberty as a result of COVID regulations could be borne as long as they were i) limited, ii) able to be scrutinised and critiqued, and iii) equitable by design. We might find the recipes for criticising these measures in the recent history of Macron’s Presidency. In France the last ‘State of Emergency’ struggled with its limits, stretching out for 719 days, before Macron’s government brought it to an end (according to Henri Leclerc, the honorary President of the Ligue des droits de l’homme, by making it permanent). Leclerc’s commentary on the “deconfinement” likewise indicate similar suspicions: a need for clear limits on emergency legislation, suspicions around a government too concerned about how its messages meet public opinion, and a widely held suspicion about giving the government personal information through track and trace apps like StopCovid. For the moment, the curfew measures have met with public approval – one swiftly conducted poll citing 62% of the French public approved of the curfew. Although, in that same survey, many French people noted they would refuse to download the new tracing app. Balancing state power and the civic duty of concitoyens offers a challenging message in a fraught moment.

In this balancing act of governance and symbolism, I was struck by Professor Sudhir Hazareesingh’s recent observation of Macron’s St-Simonian inheritance in his technocratic project. Indeed, going further, Hazareesingh noted a startling “synthesis of Pierre Mendès-France and Jacques Chaban Delmas”. Both were men whose visions were altered by the realities of governance, the former’s “modernisation” by the myriad contradictions of France’s senescent empire and the latter in his doomed effort to design a progressive route through France’s “société bloquée”. Macron’s once feted progressive platform has likewise never quite appeared as advertised, and as with Giscard d’Estaing (another young, reformist President) has shifted towards a more “distinctly right-wing” tone to shore up support from voters more readily allied to traditional party constituencies. In his contrast of a “society of free individuals” and a “nation of united citizens”, Macron touched upon a number of debates in French politics – around the status of the Republic and its response to COVID – while giving an echo of his Presidency’s own rightwards trajectory. Seeking to activate civic responses while restating state power amidst crisis, this speech juxtaposed key themes of his platform as it is developing: a refocussing on state symbolism (in the model of Beck’s ‘retro-politics’ and in the style of Chabal’s ‘neo-Republicanism’), while “en même temps” attempting to localise immediate restrictions and engage grass-roots support for the project. The gamble for his Presidency, and for France’s COVID response, is in the government’s ability to find the balance between governing a “society of free individuals” and responsibilizing a “nation of united citizens”.


[1] Norbert Elias, The Society of Individuals (New York : Continuum, 2001), 229-233.

[2] See A. Touze, ‘“Cruelly Absent Grandeur”? Democracy’s Twenty-First-Century Histories’, Geschichte und Gesellschaft, 44:3 (2018), 466-490.

[3] M. Gauchet, ‘Democracy: From One Crisis to Another’, Social Imaginaries, 1:1 (2015), 179-180

[4] Emile Chabal, A Divided Republic: Nation, State and Citizenship in Contemporary France (Cambridge: CUP, 2015), 115.

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