Macron’s idealism is a worthy model for Irish politics
Irish politicians should heed the French president and show what we stand for
French president Emmanuel Macron at Versailles. Photograph: AFP
‘Political parties are a marvellous mechanism . . . If one were to entrust the organisation of public life to the devil, he could not invent a more clever device.” So wrote a remarkable French philosopher, Simone Weil, who died young in 1943.
Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, quoted other words by her this month when he addressed parliament at a special session in the former royal palace of Versailles. Irish politicians, needing to forge closer ties with France and other European Union countries as Brexit unfolds, should take heed.
Today France celebrates its national holiday. Macron is hosting Donald Trump in Paris, having stolen a march on British plans to get Trump to London and signalling French ambitions.
At Versailles, Macron appealed to French pride (“fierté”), saying: “The French people demand from us not only efficiency. Efficiency is an instrument! One may be completely efficient in the service of a bad cause. No, it demands that which the philosopher Simone Weil called ‘effectivity’. That is to say the concrete, tangible, visible application of our guiding principles.”
In a speech that flailed clientelism, corruption, conflicts of interest and cynicism, Macron added that for his government “effectivity” means fidelity to principles, above all to liberty, equality and fraternity.
Irish politicians will treat his words as standard political rhetoric at their peril. What principles guide Ireland today? The import of principles is vague but real.
Ireland has benefited from a perception that we stand for something more than narrow self-interest
Unsurprisingly, beaten opponents ridiculed Macron, a former highly-paid investment banker at Rothschilds, suggesting that his choice of venue reflected a king-sized ego. They suspect he appeals to principle in order to soften the blow of planned economic changes.
But Macron has succeeded precisely because he brings more than a centrist technocratic presence to the public stage. He actually inspires, in a peculiar low-key way that captures the unassuming spirit of this age.
Albert Camus described Weil herself as “the only great spirit of our times”. Susan Sontag, no acolyte of Weil, nevertheless understood that the sometime Marxist, unbaptised Christian philosopher stood for something real. She wrote of Weil: “So far as we love seriousness, as well as life, we are moved by it, nourished by it. In the respect we pay to such lives, we acknowledge the presence of mystery in the world.” Will Macron’s mystery be undone by high office?
Ireland has benefited from a perception that we stand for something more than narrow self-interest. The basis for that perception in Europe is partly romantic and partly historical. From Irish monks who kept learning alive in the Dark Ages to German scholars who immersed themselves in Celtic studies and French intellectuals who appreciate Samuel Beckett’s joining the French Resistance, Ireland has inspired.
What does Ireland stand for today besides administrative or economic inefficiency and the abuse of power? Can we rise even to efficiency, let alone effective moral choices?
How does Macron see Ireland? In the preface to his monumental book Memory, History, Forgetting, the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur expresses his indebtedness to his then assistant Macron “for a pertinent critique of the writing and the elaboration of the critical apparatus of this work”.
Macron, a student of philosophy, is keenly aware of history and can appreciate past connections between Ireland and France, from flocks of “wild geese” who landed at the court of the deposed King James II at St Germain to the industries and vineyards that Irish emigrants established across France.
But Macron also understands the selective nature of history, what is and perhaps should be forgotten. His focus is on the future. He grasps the limits of ideology. Public relations and spin do not measure up to historical challenges such as globalisation and climate change.
If the pride which Macron evoked in his speech at Versailles is more than personal vanity or national chauvinism, then chiming with his clock requires Ireland to prove its own efficacity, to show and not just say that we stand for something more than the reception of agricultural grants or competition with France for London’s nervous financial services.
Leo chumming with Emmanuel at a rugby match in the Stade de France (did Hugh Grant star in a rom-com there?) will not cut garlic. To bolster our relationships with the rest of Europe as Brexit bites, we need serious engagement. At least French is the one language both widely and sometimes efficiently taught in our schools.
Unfortunately, at this time of need, Irish citizens looking at our Dáil and Seanad may be inclined to agree with the judgment of Simone Weil on political parties.
Colum Kenny is emeritus professor of communications at DCU