Historian-in-chief Macron commemorates 150 years of French republic

President promises new law to tackle ‘separatism’

"On this anniversary day, it is not so much joy which dominates as lucid gravity," French president Emmanuel Macron said when he celebrated the 150th anniversary of the republic at the Pantheon on Friday.

Macron specifically mentioned the threat of “separatism”, his code word for Islamic fundamentalism, and the rise in attacks on “police, gendarmes, magistrates, mayors, all those who struggle against violence, racism and anti-Semitism”.

The government will present a draft law against separatism this autumn, he promised.

The speech was at the same time left- and right-wing, in keeping with Macron’s “en même temps” motto. He condemned “those who, often in the name of a god, sometimes with the help of foreign powers, try to impose their law”. That statement should please conservatives in the run-up to the 2022 presidential election.

Macron’s homage to France’s “singular welfare state, a model of social protection which leaves no one by the roadside” may please the left. “The increasingly fragile ties of respect and civility” which held France’s “unique” welfare state together were also threatened by violence and hatred, he said.

Macron chose the Pantheon because the heart of Léon Gambetta, the Italian immigrant, naturalised Frenchman and parliamentarian who proclaimed the Third Republic on September 4th, 1870, has reposed there for the last century.

Macron recognised the contribution to the republic of five naturalised citizens: Gambetta, Marie Curie, Josephine Baker, Félix Éboué and Gisèle Halimi.

"The republic is still fragile, still precarious. We must fight for her with every breaking day, with what I call republican patriotism," Macron told five naturalised citizens from the UK, Algeria, Peru, Cameroon and Lebanon.

Jean-Noel Jeanneney, a leading French historian, was Macron's guest at the ceremony. "His affirmation of the right to blasphemy struck me most, in this week when the Charlie Hebdo trial opened," Jeanneney said.

Macron’s previous minister for justice criticised a lycée student for making obscene statements about Islam. The student was threatened on social media.

Macron said laïcité or state-enforced secularism “guarantees the right to believe or not to believe. It is inseparable from freedom of expression, which extends to the right to blasphemy . . . Being French means defending . . . freedom to ridicule, mock, caricature, which Voltaire claimed was the source of all other freedoms.”

The French language was "the cement of the nation", Macron said. "Mastering our language means touching the soul of the nation . . . Our language is the cradle of the republic . . . Our language holds our people, our history together . . . In France, everything starts with words."

In this correspondent's experience, no other country is as obsessed with its own history as France. Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck, the authors of a new book about Saudi crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman, quote Donald Trump's son-in-law and Middle East adviser Jared Kushner in another context. "I don't believe in history. It bogs you down," Kushner said.

Historian-in-chief

By contrast, the French expect their president to be a sort of historian-in-chief. “I am sure that [Macron] sees it as part of his role,” says Jean-François Chanet, a professor of history at Sciences Po. “It is one of the attributes of the office.”

French history must be taken as a whole, the monarchy with the revolution, Macron said on Friday. “One never chooses a part of France. One chooses France.”

By reconciling seemingly irreconcilable events, Macron “ascribes continuity to the past”, Chanet said.

September 4th has rarely been celebrated. Few Parisians know why a metro station is named after it. “It was something of a cursed date, because the republic was born in defeat,” Chanet explains.

Two days earlier, Emperor Napoleon III was defeated and taken prisoner by the Germans at the Battle of Sedan. On September 4th, a mob burst into the National Assembly, demanding that deputies declare a republic. Gambetta obliged, but the war continued.

On September 19th, Prussian troops laid siege to Paris. Gambetta fled in a hot air balloon on October 7th. The following spring, Paris descended into civil war when the Commune refused to accept the terms of defeat.

Macron did not evoke this complicated history, which presaged two Franco-German world wars and 150 years of republican rule, interrupted only by German occupation and the collaborationist Vichy regime.

The republic proclaimed by Gambetta “frightened people because it was the daughter of the revolution, including the terror”, says Chanet.

The republic almost flip-flopped when monarchists won a huge majority in February 1871 elections. But by crushing the Commune in May 1871, “the republic became reassuring, because she was moderate,” Chanet adds.

As Jeanneney points out, the September 4th, 1870 proclamation was the only bloodless change of regime in France in the 19th century.

The advent of the French republic might be seen a Macronian, en même temps sort of resolution, a middle ground between monarchy and revolution.