When considering political figures, it is almost a “new orthodoxy” to think and say the opposite, and even see a plot. Something President Macron said a couple of days ago struck me in contrast to his usual fashion of expressing things in the national or common interest. In particular, a read the news article in Le Point of 22nd December 2020. His keynote was “We have become a victim and emotional society”.
I was taken back to many of my reflections on Romanticism in the decades following the French Revolution and the Terror. The basis of that new way of thinking was the Age of Reason with the imagination restored to man’s wholeness. It is a major tenet of St Thomas Aquinas that reason has to take primacy over the passions. The Romantic is not an anti-rationalist but wants the wholeness of human experience. I doubt that Macron would directly subscribe to such ideas. He is pragmatic – and he is a banker. He does his job in such a way as it works. However, these reflections show something that stands out in the political world from pure considerations of money and particular interest.
Society is deeply disturbed by the crisis caused by the pandemic, identity politics and polarisation. Above all, conspiracy theory is gaining ground, often with the most grotesque and irrational ideas. The French are a “people of paradoxes”. I sympathised with the early yellow jacket (Gilets Jaunes) movement, because Macron’s politics seemed to be serving only the wealthy, using ecological concerns to tax ordinary people that much more. Then the movement became violent and bestial. Its agenda was no longer ordinary hard-working people with ever-shrinking budgets but violent anarchists and nihilists like in late nineteenth-century Russia.
This article suggests that Macron has acquired experience from these crises in a country that resisted Nazism during the Occupation and has ever since been suspicious of any kind of authority, legitimate or not. There is the old canard about everything being allowed in England unless it was forbidden, everything being forbidden in Germany unless it was allowed – and everything being forbidden in France, but you would do it all the same. It is an undisciplined country, but one that will not incline to excessive or irrational authority.
Taken to excess, this a priori refusal of authority becomes a “permanent poison”, a vicious circle, a crisis of identity and conspiracy theory – the very driving force behind Nazism and Stalinism.
Macron notes a “Manichaean” view of history, a “society of permanent emotion”. The victim is vindicated above all things and crushes reason. Such a mentality cannot accept complexity and will not listen to the other person’s word. According to some psychologists I am reading, the world has become narcissistic in the meaning of the disordered personality. Wearing a mask has become a sign of respect for others, but many people have just not got it. Life is about their convenience.
He is a convinced republican, in the French, not American, meaning of the word. France was once a kingdom, and the Aristocracy and the Church themselves attracted the anger of the Jacobins and people reduced to extreme poverty. Then came five republics. No political system is perfect, but it seems to be suited for modern times in the task of upholding freedom and democracy. De Gaulle’s answer to the defeat of Nazism seemed to inspire people in those days. Some dream of bringing back the King, someone with a more or less legitimate bloodline – but it won’t happen, even in spite of the writings of the Marquis de la Franquerie.
What the French Republic has offered is a secular state in which, in theory, different religions, cultures and philosophies can thrive, something like in the USA. The one condition is that of integration and respect for others. I am a foreigner in this country, and I was asked for several things when France granted me citizenship. First of all, there was an adequate use of the French language to live and work here. Another was to be financially independent, at least at the time of application. Another was to know at least the basics of French history and how the state institutions work. I have to admit I am a little vague, but constant exposure to the news media brings me notions of the Government, the President and the Prime Minister, the Assemblée Nationale and the Senate. The system is essentially divided, like most modern countries, into the Legislative, the Executive and the Judicial – the famous separation of the three powers. This makes France an état de droit, a state of law, with no one being above the law. There are abuses and corruptions, but they seem not to go as far as some other countries, even united and disunited kingdoms!
It could be better, but it could also be much worse. In spite of the horrors of the Terror, Robespierre and the Jacobins, the Revolution began by heralding a system of liberté, égalité et fraternité – to which Wordsworth responded: “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive. But to be young was very heaven”. France has been very nasty with the Church through anti-clericalism, as has Italy. Many of the clergy in the late nineteenth century brought it upon themselves. That is something I can understand through my erstwhile contact with intégriste Catholicism! Modern France is tolerant. Distinctions are made between fanatical Islamists and terrorists on one side, and ordinary Muslims living in the country as we all do, on the other. The law is equal for all, at least it should be. Macron has attracted a lot of anger for his position on the kind of Islam that would conquer and take over France if it got half the chance. From what I have heard him say, I find his position perfectly reasonable and responsible. He is also right in asking us to love this country. I think I do, in spite of my frustrations with many things. Otherwise it would be more proper to go and live somewhere else.
There has been less of the Woke phenomenon here in France than the USA, but it has taken hold as an ideology. To give in to that ideology would be no different than submitting to Hitler or Stalin in other times. We cannot “cancel” the history of a nation any more than our own personal lives.
In every human society, there has to be authority and law. I have often expressed a certain form of anarchism in my own thought, but the human soul can only escape the constraint of law through the life of the spirit. This is an idea of St Paul in regard to the Mosaic law, but this will also apply in a modern secular state as in the canon law of the Church. Freedom is spiritual, and the lower man sinks into sin and selfishness, the more he has to be constrained with bit and bridle.
He said (my translation): “All contemporary societies live according to this kind of horizontalization, contesting any form of authority, including academic and scientific authority“. He added “The psychological and social consequences are terrifying because we end up not believing in anything any more“, and he describes a “vicious circle: a levelling out, which creates skepticism, generates obscurantism and which, contrary to the Cartesian doubt that is the foundation of rational construction and truth, leads to conspiracy theories“.
Here he was speaking about the pandemic crisis. The conspiracy theorists seem to have no positive message to convey: no vaccination, no lockdowns, no masks or barrier gestures. Either they would have the virus infect millions of people and kill as many as the Spanish Flu, or force state authorities to discredit themselves and say that it was all a “plandemic” to turn the world into an Orwell-style dystopia. I wonder if such people think so far beyond their own bestial comfort. Their message is none other than the nihilism of Dostoevsky’s Demons or the mentality denounced by Nietzsche.
For a State leader to understand such subtleties, as did great men like De Gaulle, is a great gift to us. We have all to work for a revival of reason and objectivity enriched by our use of creative imagination and the fulness of the human person. Macron’s message is one of positive humanism. I think he believes in God, but France does not allow a public figure to take sides publicly with religious beliefs. French secularism is more restrictive than its American counterpart, and perhaps a dose of the French brand would do some good in regard to fundamentalist Christianity and the kind of ideology that destroys faith and love of God. Macron is President of France and knows the game and how it works. He might not survive the election of 2022 and we might get a wild-eyed demagogue, but we will remember Macron as a man of thought, values and principle.
His thoughts leave me with hope that there may be light at the end of the tunnel and a new paradigm to come.