Sovereign fairy tales: the President’s new clothes?

On the 12th February, two boys Augustin and Anatole had a sign confiscated on the way into the France vs Ireland Six Nations rugby match. Their father, a journalist, took to Twitter to express his disbelief, before the French Rugby Federation came good, reassuring them that the team’s captain had received the message of support. This was not a political message, they confirmed, and Antoine Dupont wasn’t a candidate in the upcoming Presidential elections. Perhaps he should have been. With three weeks until the first round of the Presidential, we may know who the sovereigntist candidates are but, to put it mildly, after winning the Grand Slam in the Six Nations, there is still only one Dupont that most French people care about.

Image of tweets showing a sign saying 'Dupont Président', with the French rugby captain later holding it

Yet, the language of sovereignty is far more widespread than the stump speeches of France’s most noted ‘Frexit’ advocate, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan trailing in the polls with around 1.5% of the votes. Some had been similarly confused to hear President Emmamuel Macron echo Brexit campaigners only a few days before, when he spoke at a plant in Belfort. There, he expressed the ambition to “take back control of our energy destiny.” Sitting in the crowd, and clearly approving the message, was the former mayor of Belfort, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, the longtime champion of left-wing “souverainisme”. Chevènement duly endorsed Emmanuel Macron’s candidacy in an interview with the Journal de Dimanche a fortnight later. He stated that his preference, as for many others was “this combination of the tradition of social progress and the culture of the state, which Emmanuel Macron embodies.”

Image of Emmanuel Macron speaking at an industrial plant in Belfort

In Le Monde, Francois Krug explored Macron’s youthful engagement with Chevènement’s Mouvement des Citoyens, the small left-wing sovereigntist party. Krug describes sifting through INA clips before finding this moment from a TF1 report on a summer conference at the University of Perpignan, showing a 21 year-old Emmanuel Macron in attendance. The President moved away from the MDC, gravitating towards the PS, although we are told that he did vote for Chevènement in 2002 (See: Marc Endeweld, L’Ambigu Monsier Macron (Flammarion, 2015), Chapter 5). Sure enough, Chevènement praised Macron’s candidacy after he broke the bipartisan system in 2017.

Over the last month, at Poissy and Pau, we have had two early moments to see the incumbent President make the case for a renewed mandate. Yet, at his meeting in Pau (not a rally, we’re told, but an encounter with the French people), five words stood out, which echoed that sovereigntist past: ‘For a more independent nation.”

The Emmanuel Macron of 2017 seemed convinced that the market could solve all of France’s problems. Yet, in 2022, as the President is striving for a second term, the importance of the sovereign state has been reinforced. As he said in Pau, “all of us are forged by events”, and it seems notable how his emphasis on national autonomy has increased within the framework of his ideas. Certainly, in terms of energy policy, his thinking has been driven by European decarbonisation goals, as well as the awkward European dependence on Russian gas. Managing this green transition while keeping the bill light for ordinary French people involves for him, a commitment to nuclear power which amounts to trying to thread the needle between competing pressures (with the driving-inspired Gilets Jaunes protests in very recent memory). This goes beyond energy, however. In June 2020, when updating the French people about the response to the pandemic, Macron expressed a desire to pursue much greater autonomy in key sectors, particularly in relation to medical supplies but also pursuing “agricultural independence.” The experience of this health crisis, including the shortcomings of certain sectors of the French economy and the dislocation of supply chains, led him to say: “We need to regain the moral strength and the will to produce in France and regain this independence.”

Macron speaking in Pau

The former LFI activist and author, Thomas Guénolé, defined four main families of ‘souverainisme’: ethnocultural, civic, Marxist-revolutionary, and economic, which differed in how they define the nation they want to defend. We might readily associate civic souverainisme with someone like Arnaud Montebourg or even Nicolas Dupont-Aignan (with a touch of ethno-cultural souverainisme in his case), or in Marine Le Pen or Eric Zemmour we can see the full ethno-cultural expression. Jean-Luc Melenchon could likely be considered a Marxist-revolutionary adherent (with some civic tendencies). Chevènement (the main figure of civic souverainisme), however, was not supportive of the France Insoumis leader, stating “Mélenchon has a certain talent, but a problem with the Republic. The Sixth Republic he dreams of would only be a return to the assembly system…”

Where Macron has engaged with this souverainiste message, it has been in civic and economic terms, with his focus on supply chains and French production, as well as some overtures to the grands débats with which he met the Gilets Jaunes. Clearly, however, it is neither in social, economic, nor energy policy that we might most fundamentally challenge a label of souverainisme for Macron. A much-vaunted globalist and champion of European integration, Macron’s position has been diametrically opposed to ethno-cultural ‘souverainisme’. Back in July 2018, Macron stated that “the real frontier which divides Europe today is that between progressives and nationalists.” Indeed, Macron viewed the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union as symbolic of that wider crisis facing Europe. Today that crisis is more violent and more alarming, and the invasion of Ukraine has once again raised the spectre of world war. France’s role in this altered European polity, both within the ‘European bloc’ and in its bilateral relations with Russia and Ukraine, shows the tension between a desire for a strong nation state with an exceptional national culture, and the articulation of an outward facing progressive vision of expansive European liberalism and deeper integration. As journalist Gilles Bornstein observed: “Emmanuel Macron wants a Europe that protects and a Europe that protects itself, from migratory flows, goods that are too cheap, and also from foreign interference. Emmanuel Macron invents sovereignty on a European scale. Where Jean-Luc Mélenchon or Marine Le Pen want to erect borders on the scale of the territory, he too wants to erect barriers, but on the scale of the European continent.”

This is a long way from his critiques of Marine Le Pen’s protectionism, his endorsement of the Whirlpool factory in Amiens closing, selling off Toulouse airport to Chinese investment firms and so on. Macron has frequently looked every inch the neo-liberal. Indeed, according to Gilles Finchelstein, the head of the Jaurès think-tank, “The reconstruction of macronisme by chevènementisme is a fairytale”. David Cayla has likewise called this shift nothing but rhetoric, noting that although the European Union is not exactly well-loved in France, leaving remains a political imponderable: “As a result, everyone is playing with Europe against purpose. Europeanists castigate it to convince of their attachment to France, while those who have defended sovereignty theses avoid being too vindictive.” Whether myth, mask, or new direction, Macron’s rhetoric has changed over his quinquennat, and the language of sovereignty looks to become an important register for his campaign.

Confusion around sovereignty and souverainisme in its myriad expressions, is rife in the current Presidential campaign. In deploying this language, Macron seems to be triangulating to cut a more appealing figure to the right, though he may also be reflecting his youthful political engagement alongside the lessons learned during his term. If this newly donned souverainisme is a fairytale, then this may well be a case of the President’s new clothes. You can be certain, however that the incumbent President has no confusion about which Dupont he’d like to be associated with, and Macron will be hoping to emulate the scrum-half’s winning ways in 2022.

Macron tweet congratulating French rugby team for their 6 nations win

This blog was prepared as a contribution to the IHR Modern French History roundtable, held on 21st March 2022. A recording of that event will be available shortly.

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