Photo by Randy Colas on Unsplash
The hunt for Emmanuel Macron:
What happens when the press and public
become locked in a feedback loop of extremism
by Fabia Chenivesse-Wong
In May 2017, Emmanuel Macron was elected as President of France. His victory, as a young man who had assembled his own party after a single and relatively brief foray into politics occurred at a time when populist governments were being elected across Europe, the British had just voted to leave the European Union and Donald Trump was just getting started as the President of the USA.
In France, Macron’s election was accompanied by the decimation of the two political parties that had held power in France for the last 35 years. One of his first actions in power was to table a law to reduce the number of parliamentarians by 30 percent and to forbid the employment of family members as staff — a notoriously common form of corruption amongst the political class (a related scandal resulted in the spectacular undoing of Francois Fillon, the leader of the Republican party and the erstwhile frontrunner for the presidency). It was no surprise, then, that Macron would attract the undivided attention of the remnants of these political entities, who have, since then, been predictably united in their desire to see him fail. More interesting and deserving of attention is the international and French press’ complicity.
Coming on the heels of a largely successful battle with the SNCF, the national train company, the first “scandal” to hit Macron’s administration was instigated by the press. The “Benalla Affair” is perhaps most noteworthy for its uninspired banality.
On the first of May 2018, French Labour Day, France was enveloped in widescale union-led demonstrations. In Paris, over a thousand armed extremist militants seized the opportunity to create havoc, setting fire to businesses and destroying property. The police responded; at the end of the day, while the cost of material destruction was significant, the human casualties were low.
Enter Alexandre Benalla. Twenty-six years old, and at the time a member of Macron’s security team, having previously worked for the Hollande administration, he had sought to accompany the Paris forces of order as an observer on the first of May. He was involved in two arrests; one was captured on video. It is worthwhile to watch the videos themselves. There are two, taken from slightly different angles. (1) Huffington Post France (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UuMxgf2V7GM); and (2) Le Monde (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PgjUeK6lCJk&t=57s).
The young couple labelled as “demonstrators” in the footage later testified, first, that they were not in fact demonstrating, and second, that they had attacked the police, throwing a glass carafe and an ashtray from a nearby cafe, immediately before Mr. Benalla’s intervention. Mr. Benalla, who is not a policeman, is under investigation for having taken on the appearance of an official, by wearing a helmet and carrying a walkie-talkie, when he had no such status at the time, and for violence as a public servant. He is also under investigation for the crime of “light” assault as there were no significant injuries sustained. Two days after the incident, Mr. Benalla was suspended for two weeks and subsequently demoted to administrative duties, and the Paris prefect of police was notified.
In July, the videos were picked up by the press, and so began a months long political and media circus. The opposition, united across the political spectrum, refused to continue parliamentary debates on proposed constitutional and legal reforms, directing all attention to the alleged mishandling of Mr. Benalla’s conduct. Interestingly, amongst the reforms that were shelved was the proposition to significantly reduce the number of parliamentarians — to date, the legal project is still on hold. The press, however, did not pick up this peculiar self-interested coincidence. Rather, they gleefully heaped fuel on the fire, referring to Mr. Benalla as a close collaborator of the President and publishing daily front page stories on issues of such pressing national concern as the perquisites of Mr. Benalla’s job at the Elysee, or a selfie, in which Mr. Benalla was depicted to have been carrying a firearm. Meanwhile, at the National Assembly, Mr. Benalla’s use of the official gym was debated.
Two commissions of inquiry were created, involving the exhaustive interviewing of politicians and civil servants who had any connection to Mr. Benalla or the events in question. Both the centre-Right Les Republicains and the center-Left Parti Socialiste brought a number of failed no-confidence motions seeking the dissolution of the government.
For months — and even to the day of writing — it has been impossible to avoid a headline with Mr. Benalla’s name in France. Eventually, Mr. Benalla was fired, and he has now been alleged to have used his diplomatic passports after his termination, without authorization.
For the past several years in North America, cellphone footage has often made the headlines, having become a potent means of holding the police to account for violence on people of colour. Watching the Benalla videos presents a jarring example of cultural difference. It appears that Mr. Benalla indeed laid his hands upon two individuals. Whether his conduct was illegal is a legitimate question, but so is whether the ensuing political and media tempest could be considered proportional or justifiable.
It is perhaps the direction the force was applied that whetted the appetite of the French press – Mr. Benalla, a supporter of the forces of order, overpowering members of “the resistance”. There is a lasting French romance with mass demonstration dating from the Revolution, through to May ‘68 and even now, in respect of the gilets jaune. It is worth noting also that while Mr. Benalla is French, his parents are Moroccan – when the scandal first erupted, there was an ugly inquiry into his background and whether he had changed his name to appear “more French”.
Regardless of the underlying motive, it is difficult not to consider the fury surrounding the Benalla affair as opportunistic politicization. If Mr. Benalla had been an elected official the matter might have warranted this level of scrutiny. He is, however, a civil servant with access to the President; it is clear that it is his link with President Macron, however tenuous, that led to the witch hunt. The instrumentalization of the affair by the opposition with the collaboration of the press brought government work to a standstill for more than a month, the cost, of course, ultimately borne by the French taxpayer.
It is worth noting that in contrast, Mr. Jean-Luc Melenchon, the head of the far Left La France Insoumise, who is being investigated for irregular expenditures during his failed presidential campaign, was recently caught on camera shoving a public prosecutor. No firestorm of any notable magnitude resulted in the National Assembly, or in the press.
“… it is disingenuous and contradictory to characterize a movement
that uses violence and intimidation to demand the resignation
of a democratically elected leader as pro-democracy.”
More recently, the headlines have been dominated by the gilets jaune. Walking through the southern French city where I currently reside, it is easy enough to see that a diverse cross-section of the French is represented by the gilets jaune, even if only by noting the types of cars they drive (those supporting the gilets jaune have made it a practice to leave their fluorescent vests in the windshield of their vehicles). We know that rural French and inhabitants of small cities and villages are well represented within the movement; the working class gilets jaune are many, as are the well heeled. Beneath the differences, there is the anger.
Since November of last year, every Saturday, the gilets jaune have demonstrated across France. Depending on the city, this has meant a handful of yellow-clad people shouting vague slogans into a megaphone or, elsewhere, fluorescent-clad masses crowding into historical centres, with shop-owners closing up, either from fear of looting or teargas, or simply because the protests have driven away their patrons. The gilets jaune have also targeted the arteries of the country, blocking or slowing traffic, and at times, occupying train stations.
In France, a country with more than its share of experience with mass demonstrations, it is illegal to demonstrate without giving advance notice to the authorities. The first weekend of protests were a grim reminder of why this is the case, when over 200 people were injured and one killed around the unplanned traffic blocks. In spite of the heavy toll, the protestors, up until late January, continued to defy the law by refusing to provide advance notice of their actions, as well as police attempts to keep them separate from city centres.
When the protests first erupted, they were widely covered as evidence of the President’s declining popularity in France and an exercise in democracy. Both propositions are questionable. First, it’s doubtful that Macron was ever popular. Although he was elected with a majority government, it was by no means a regular election. Macron won a second round that saw him face off against Marine Le Pen of the extreme Right Front National (now the Rassemblement National). Even so, 10.6 million people, including 30% of working-age French, voted for the Front National, and a quarter of eligible voters abstained. In short, more people did not vote for Macron than did, and amongst those who did, a significant number were simply seeking to avoid a Le Pen government. He is, however, much less popular with the press than he was in the heady first days of his tenure, when he featured prominently as Europe’s hope.
Second, it is disingenuous and contradictory to characterize a movement that uses violence and intimidation to demand the resignation of a democratically elected leader as pro-democracy. Though the hike in the diesel tax may have instigated the first protests, it is clear that many of the complaints of the gilets jaune far predate Macron’s tenure. It seems increasingly plausible that the ranks of the gilets jaune are populated with those who consider that they have lost the election, who did not vote or who are not interested in elections at all, but want an opportunity to vent their generalized frustration. Under such circumstances, the sentiments behind the movement are better characterized as anti-Republican. This would be far from the first time that the French Republic (now in its fifth iteration) has been challenged. France has a long history of anti-Republicanism, and consistently strong bases of support for both the extreme Right and Left.
Meanwhile, under the guise of neutral reporting, a variety of French and international publications have adopted the practice of using reactions to the movement from Le Pen and Melenchon as headlines, in particular their condemnations and characterizations of President Macron as the “President of the rich”, and their support of the protesters as the “voice of the people”.
The implosion of the centrist parties during the 2017 presidential election left a void, an absence of reasoned opposition, that has since been filled by the rhetoric of the parties of the extremes. The parties and their leaders share a staunchly anti-system position: anti-European, anti-globalist, and increasingly, anti-rule of law – particularly when their own conduct or that of their party is placed under investigation for corruption. That they aim only to see what has been done, undone, translates to being untethered both from the need to contribute to a constructive social and political discourse, and from reality. It stands to reason that they may use whatever means possible to fuel resentment, envy, and anger, the primary currency in which they deal. As the UK hurtles towards the precipice of a no-deal Brexit, it is prudent to recall Nigel Farage and his legions of Brexiters, and how easy it can be to oppose a system without the need to present a tenable alternative.
The press’ publication of extremist views as simply “the opposition” without context has the inevitable effect of normalizing those views. In many ways, the gilet jaune movement seems to reflect the spiralling discourse: a feedback loop of anti-system views, not saddled with the burden of reality. There is no doubt that it would be difficult to achieve a consensus amongst them, given that half of the gilets jaune want a decrease in taxes, and the other half desires an increase in state support. Simultaneously there is a certain convenience to not needing to achieve consensus nor commit to a platform: the movement has presented an opportunity for individuals who join it to gain a sense of belonging while at the same time avoid responsibility for any unsavoury behaviour that might be undertaken by their comrades during the protests.
On a recent Saturday, I found myself travelling along a French highway and encountered the gilets jaune twice. Once, I watched a group leave the roundabout they had occupied in order to obstruct entry into the city centre, and move as an unescorted group towards a bridge, on foot through highway traffic. I later learned that the group had descended upon the city courthouse, with several of them damaging the gate and attempting to enter, as one amongst them had been criminally charged and was scheduled to appear that day. He has since been convicted for threatening the local head of police. The second encounter was on a long stretch of freeway bordering a steep hill. As we were passing by, a group of gilets jaune became visible, mounting the ledge from the other side and pushing large tires down the hill towards the busy freeway. Fortunately, the police had just blocked off a stretch of road to protect oncoming traffic.
As I watched the tires caree towards us, the utter thoughtlessness behind the action brought to mind the ease with which mass demonstrations like those of the gilets jaune can now be organized. With a gesture as simple as a click, or by placing a piece of clothing on a dashboard, one gains automatic membership to a movement. In this way, there is a sense that the movement itself is a reflection of the means that gave it life: individualist, reactive, lacking in reflection, and reckless.
“… we seem to be at a point in time when it is wholly acceptable to invite destruction upon the heads of others while lamenting the unfairness of one’s own situation. This begs the question: what is the responsibility of the press when an increasing number of the target audience wants to watch the world burn?”
That the experience of reading the news has drastically changed over a short period of time is evident. Less clear is how the change has altered our collective conception of “newsworthy”, the substance of the stories or how they are told, or how the press should adapt to remain relevant and responsible. The concreteness of time or page limits made the selection of news in some ways a more transparent exercise. There is certainly still someone selecting what to distribute; the reasoning, however, feels more obscure.
The hunt for President Macron presents an interesting opportunity to speculate as to the intentions behind the machinery of the press. In respect of the international coverage, there is always intellectual laxity to blame; it is always easier to describe events without contextualising them, a practice that is further incentivized by decreasing attention spans. But there also seems to be an element of schadenfreude at play: a desire to see France sink into the abyss of populism along with the UK, the US, Italy and an increasing number of other western democracies. Whether the sentiment originates with the press or its readers is unclear, but as is reflected in the gilet jaune movement itself, we seem to be at a point in time when it is wholly acceptable to invite destruction upon the heads of others while lamenting the unfairness of one’s own situation. This begs the question: what is the responsibility of the press when an increasing number of the target audience wants to watch the world burn?
As for the French press, the characterizations of coverage expressed above do not apply uniquely to fringe magazines: mainstream, progressive and widely read dailies are equally implicated in la grande chasse. It is difficult to imagine the editorial staff of a progressive French publication desiring the implosion of the Republic. But then why legitimize a violent, anti-democratic movement? In contemplating how the gilets jaune movement mirrors the platforms and resultant culture that gave it existence, it’s curious to consider how the funding structure of online press can affect its substance. With paywalls now fairly standard across the board, there is a constant ‘clickbait’ incentive for publications to produce headlines that will attract the most views, in order to generate more revenue – a goal that can be achieved through pure outrageousness, or by reflecting the zeitgeist – or at the very least the mentality of a target audience. A perhaps natural and inevitable byproduct of our consumer culture is that we tend to click what we like or agree with, and avoid what we don’t, incentivizing the creation of an echo chamber, where “news” serves the purpose not to inform but rather to confirm one’s point of view.
The interaction between press and reader is ever more intimate, ever more reactive, and one increasingly subject to mutual influence. It is a matter of public interest to consider the evolution of the relationship: how public sentiment and profit can shape the headlines, which in turn can manipulate or encourage certain viewpoints. In a Trumpian world, very often the conversation turns towards the need for a free press. While a free press is a necessary component of democracy, a healthy press – one that is both free and responsible – is indispensable for a healthy democracy. It is becoming clear that a news industry shaped not by conscientious decision but by profit-motivated algorithms encourages extremist views. If the free market, rather than principle, continues to dictate the terms of our collective newsstream, we may soon find ourselves in a situation where the “news” reflects the opinions of the most aggressive subset of the population. That is not freedom of the press, nor is it symptomatic of a democracy: rather, it is the beginning of tyranny.
Ed. note: The yellow vests movement (gilets jaune) or yellow jackets movement is a populist, grassroots political movement for economic justice that began in France in November 2018. After an online petition posted in May had attracted nearly a million signatures, mass demonstrations began on 17 November.Wikipedia
About the author:
Fabia Chenivesse-Wong. Fabia studied and practiced law at a regional law firm in her hometown of Toronto, Canada, before moving to The Hague, the Netherlands, in 2011. For six years she worked for UN tribunals, prosecuting international crime. Currently based in the south of France, she writes about gender, race, culture and the law.