Newly elected French president, Emmanuel Macron, conceives of his role as that of a master purveyor of narratives and signs. His recently unveiled official portrait is just the latest in a series of symbolic stagings, which started the very night he was elected.
Macron dramatised his accession to power by slowly processing across the Louvre Square to the accompaniment of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. The ceremony offered a profusion of symbols to be deciphered. The same piece of music was also performed when former socialist president François Mitterrand was enthroned in a ceremony at the Pantheon in 1981 – and Macron’s pace even seemed to mimic that of the late statesman.
The Louvre is also a symbol of the continuity of French power, from the monarchy to the Republic: its history starts in the 12th century under King Philip Augustus, and was still the seat of the French Ministry of Finance until the late 1980s. And then there is its famous pyramid, a distinct sign of modernity, another of Mitterrand’s legacies, but also a symbol of transcendence. This was a good night for semiologists (those who seek the hidden meanings of communication); and in every French person lies a hidden semiologist.
Books hold a special place among the many symbols used by Macron. He constantly refers to them as shaping his vision of France and of himself. This is a testament to the enduring prestige of literature in the French public space. In his book Revolution, Macron speaks of the formative role played by his childhood readings in developing his adult vision of the world.
He also casts his move from his native town of Amiens to Paris as a rewriting of the similar journeys made by characters in Balzac and Flaubert’s novels. And in a speech at Versailles on July 3, he mentioned Georges Bataille, the philosopher of violence, sacrifice and eroticism. Could you imagine that in the British Queen’s speech?
The relationship between politics and literature is immemorial in French politics. In the Fifth Republic two presidents were celebrated as writers: Charles De Gaulle, author of the War Memoirs, and Mitterrand, whose letters to his mistress are now part of leading French publisher, Gallimard’s prestigious Collection Blanche imprint. Pompidou published an anthology of French poetry and another former president, Giscard d’Estaing and now a member of the French Academy, dabbled in novel writing. Macron wants it all and more: he wants to be seen both as the hero of a modern Bildungsroman – a novel of maturation – and as an intellectual descending into the philistine world of politics.
This is what his use of books reveals in his portrait. Macron appears steadily anchored to a desk on which three sizeable volumes of literary works are displayed. One is opened in the middle, as if the president had been abruptly interrupted in his reading; two others are waiting, just in case.
To the French reader, these books are as familiar as Penguin or Ladybird editions are to the British: they are volumes of the Pléiade collection, an institution that doesn’t have an equivalent in the English-speaking world. Being published in the Pléiade means you have become canonised as a writer – which usually happens posthumously – but the Pléiade is also a beautiful object in its own right: soft, leather-bound volumes printed on bible (scritta) paper. They are objects of choice on the bookshelves of the wealthy and cultured middle classes and on the desks of literary academics. They are objects of status as much as study – somewhere between an Oxford World Classic and a Louis Vuitton bag. It is, in a word, the ultimate fetishisation of literature.
In a video posted on Twitter by his communication team, Macron can be seen skimming the open volume to find the exact page he wants to appear on the official portrait. At one point he seems so engrossed in his reading that the photographers have to beg to get his attention back.
Official portraits are an important part of the official pageantry: they set the tone of a presidency for the next five years. François Hollande never really recovered from looking like he’d got lost in the garden of the Elysée palace. In this picture, Macron harks back to another president: again, Mitterrand, whose portrait showed him holding Montaigne’s Essays, as if forcefully distracted from his reading by the necessities of his public function.
From de Gaulle to Gide
The reference to this aspect of political memory is only one of the facets of the French cultural unconscious Macron summons here. His communication team was quick to let everyone know that the open book was de Gaulle’s War Memoirs, while the two others were Stendhal’s The Red and the Black and Gide’s Fruits of the Earth.
This is factually untrue, as the Pléiade volumes usually publish the complete works of an author: Gide and Stendhal’s tomes, then, would have been a collection of their prose rather than a specific work. But what really mattered was the immediate questions this would prompt: was he referring to the famously enigmatic opening lines of the War Memoirs, “All my life I have had a certain idea of France”? But then what idea of France exactly? And what, exactly, was being alluded to in this choice of The Red and the Black (a story of social mobility and a love affair between an ambitious young man and an older married woman)? And could the reference to Gide have had something to do with the author’s ode to youth and energy?
This is why literature gets fetishised in this way. Macron’s use of it portrays the him as a reader and turns journalists, commentators and citizens into readers of his readings. They have to try to figure out what he means, what network of symbols he’s reactivating, and for what purpose. His appearances at Versailles and the Louvre showed that the symbols are so numerous and varied that they might be little less than an invitation to frantically interpret an ever-elusive presidential psyche.
This is politically astute, as the amount of time given over in public debate to making sense of the Macronian smorgarsbord of symbols and cultural references (including that taken up by this article) is time away also from the unprecedented neoliberal rewriting of the labour code announced recently by France’s prime minister, Edouard Philippe. What better dream, indeed, for a literary statesman, than to preside over a nation of semiologists.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.