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Say what you like about Emmanuel Macron (and most people do), but he’s almost certainly the only European or world leader since Vaclav Havel who could engage constructively in a discussion of the contribution made by philosophers down the ages to the development, and failings, of contemporary democracy.
There are many who could name the likes of Cicero, Socrates, Descartes, Hobbes, Hegel, Mill, Hume, Smith, Kant, Nietzsche, Marx, Foucault … the list goes on … but very few who have ever read them beyond an entry in a bluffer’s guide or, these days, Wikipedia.
Macron, who at the age of 18 secured the best baccalaureate of his year in France, is not only a political pioneer, having created both his own party, En Marche, and his own approach to problem-solving, Macronisme, he is also a throwback to the grandees of the nineteenth century, who regarded knowledge of the classics, and of the Enlightenment, as well as history and literature, as essential preconditions of wisdom.
In a recent interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Macron was asked if he agreed with Hegel that a single individual, such as Napoleon, could steer history in a new direction. He replied:
“Hegel viewed ‘great men’ as instruments of something far greater. It should be said that in referring to him in that way, he wasn’t being particularly nice to Napoleon, because he of course knows that history can always outflank you, that it is always larger than the individual. Hegel believes that an individual can indeed embody the zeitgeist for a moment, but also that the individual isn’t always clear that it is doing so.”
Try to imagine Theresa May saying that. For a start, having studied geography at Oxford, she would probably have to be reminded who Hegel was. More to the point, perhaps, try to imagine how Boris Johnson, supposedly the Cabinet’s foremost intellectual, would have responded:
“Crikey! Hegel was a bit of a rum cove. What was it he said? Hang on, hang on … ‘We don’t have to be shoemakers to know if our shoes fit. Some sort of cobblers at any rate. Ha-ha – what! And Napoleon? Oui, oui. Great man. Not a protoplasmic invertebrate. But didn’t know when to stop. That was until he met his Waterloo.”
Jeremy Corbyn would quickly have steered the discussion away from Hegel to Marx and Engels and the need for job-creation. John McDonnell would have thrown in Mao’s little red book.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, with his 2:1 in history from Oxford, might have made a stab at Hegel. He would at least have known who he was. During a talk to students at University College London this year, he was asked if the shift towards extreme nationalist sentiment in Europe wasn’t just the latest expression of Hegel’s pendulum theory – a key part of the German’s dialectic. He replied that whilst the national political community could allow for an entity such as the European Union in the future, it did not allow for it in the current circumstances, which at least made some sort of sense.
Probably the only British politicians of recent decades who could have kept up with Macron in full flow would have been Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and David “two brains” Willetts, with Willetts as the only Conservative.
Listen now to the French President reflecting on the differences in outlook between his own country and Germany, with whose veteran leader Angela Merkel he plans to work in close harmony:
“Germany is different from France. You are more Protestant, which results in a significant difference. Through the church, through Catholicism, French society was structured vertically, from top to bottom. I am convinced that it has remained so until today. That might sound shocking to some – and don’t worry, I don’t see myself as a king. But whether you like it or not, France’s history is unique in Europe. Not to put too fine a point on it, France is a country of regicidal monarchists. It is a paradox: The French want to elect a king, but they would like to be able to overthrow him whenever they want. The office of president is not a normal office – that is something one should understand when one occupies it. You have to be prepared to be disparaged, insulted and mocked. That is in the French nature. And as president, you cannot have a desire to be loved, which is, of course, difficult because everybody wants to be loved. But in the end, that’s not important. What is important is serving the country and moving it forward.”
Is he arrogant? Undoubtedly. As were De Gaulle and Mitterrand. But it is clear that Macron, like his two illustrious predecessors, thinks first and acts in accordance with a deliberative world view. Where the British value the personality and outlook of a John Bull (though they just as often get duckers and divers) the French, while risking Flash Harrys like Sarkozy or plodders like François Hollande, favour the Clever Clogs approach. Well, as Hegel might say, if the shoe fits …
Here is Macron on literature:
“[Michel] Houllebecq is surely the novelist who best describes contemporary phobias and fears. He also succeeds, perhaps like no other, in portraying the post-modern character of our society. He addresses the possibilities of genetics at times, or Islamism, and infuses all of it with a certain amount of absurdity. I get a very strong sense of that in [his novel] Submission. The way he toys with the absurd makes him an author sui generis, one who stands out from the others. I call the fears that Houllebecq so magnificently describes ‘sad passions.’ Patrick Modiano, on the other hand, is a melancholic author who describes a particular Paris, with an obsession for World War II and the traces it has left behind in our society.
“I am very interested in writers from the [wider] Francophone world. I like Kamel Daoud a lot, for example. In The Meursault Investigation and Zabor, he shows a passion for the French language, a very special way of writing that belongs to those who live on the other side of the Mediterranean. It is language that connects us. It allows people there to cling to our history, our culture and sometimes also our values. Leila Slimani, a Moroccan who has lived in France for years, has also written impressive books about society in France today and about our contemporary societies in general. I thoroughly believe that reading and literature can help a society to better understand itself.”
Sound like Mrs May, or David Davis, or Liam Fox? I don’t think so. The Prime Minister, asked this year to list her favourite novels, said that she had read all of the Harry Potter Books. Previously, David Cameron nominated David Copperfield, while Tony Blair went for Ivanhoe. On the Labour benches, maybe Kier Starmer and Hilary Benn could keep the British end up, But I’m only guessing. At least they’re all better than Donald Trump, who apparently has always been too busy to waste his time with books.
Does it really matter if our leaders understand anything much beyond how to reduce the deficit or how to find more money for defence and the NHS? Perhaps not. Maybe practical men and women fit better with the British idea of themselves as sturdy and unpretentious. But for all his foibles (and I’m sure there will be good reason to mock the Macron years), I can’t help admiring the fact that the current occupant of the Elysée Palace ranges across the academic as well as the everyday world, and down through the history of thought itself, in search of answers to his country’s problems. If, and when, he fails, at least there is a chance that his failure will be heroic.