Manifestation du mouvement des gilets jaunes, à Belfort, le 19 janvier 2019.

Economist Frédéric Lordon’s Letter to Emmanuel Macron: “Hand Over the Keys”

by Frédéric Lordon

In response to the explosive yellow vests (gilets jaunes) movement, French president Emmanuel Macron announced the “Great Debate” – a vast, unprecedented nationwide exercise in consulting citizens on how to fix France’s problems – starting in December 2018 and ending this March. Attempting to shore up his legitimacy and dampen contestation, Macron travelled the country engaging in lengthy debates with locally elected mayors. With his tour ending on 15 March, the yellow vests flocked to Paris, ransacking the Champs-Élysées and joining in two other large, simultaneous protests: one for climate justice, the other against state racism and police violence.

Days later on 18 March, Macron hosted a hand-picked group of 64 intellectuals at the presidential palace to discuss the challenges the country faced. One invitee who refused to attend was economist and philosopher Frédéric Lordon. What follows is a translation of his response to Macron’s invitation, originally read out loud at a rumbustious public meeting in Paris last week.

Dear Mr Macron,

I am sure you will understand that if it’s a matter of coming to decorate official proceedings with pinkies out in the company of such jesters and court intellectuals as Bénard-Henri Lévy, Raphaël Enthoven or Patrick Boucheron*, I would prefer to give your invitation a miss – or even to have dinner with François Hollande. But, at least your invitation provides another opportunity to document your conception of the debate.

Did you know that besides the newspaper editors that serve you like lackeys, endlessly parroting the mantra that “democracy is debate”, no one believes in your “Great Debate”? You yourself are not much more convinced. In a recent private remark to journalists, which ended up getting out, you said as much: “I’m soldering things back together, and as soon it’s consolidated, I’ll re-attack.” How refreshing. A bit of soldering and then you’ll strike. Perfect. At least we know what to expect. We’ll bring the blowtorch.

In reality, the way you use language to ‘debate’ has been clear to us for a long time. We will remember it for years to come because it has made real what Orwell’s well-known novel [1984] anticipated exactly 70 years ago. After the stonking success of your Armistice memorial, at least we will never be able to say that you didn’t have a good memory for dates. But what makes this way of using language so particular is the fact that it is not simply a matter of telling lies.

And of course, your institutions continue to lie — clumsily, brazenly. Your prosecutors lie, your police force lies, your medical experts lie. What you have attempted to do — by way of intermediary experts — to the memory of Adama Traoré is a disgrace. But, I am almost tempted to say that it is the kind of lying that is tragically ordinary.

You and your ministerial henchmen from the “start-up nation” are something else: you destroy language. When Angès Buzyn, the Minister of Solidarity and Health, says that she is cutting hospital beds to improve the quality of care; when Muriel Pénicaud, the minister of labour, says that the dismantling of labour laws extends guarantees for employees; when Frédérique Vidal, the minister for higher education, explains the increase in university fees for foreign students by way of a concern for financial equity; when you yourself present the new law about fake news as an advance for press freedom, or the anti-vandal law* as a protection of the right to protest, or when you explain to us that abolishing the wealth tax* is part of a politics of social justice, you can clearly see that something else is going on;  something other than mere lies. What is at hand is the destruction of language and the very meaning of words.

If people say to you, “I can only eat a meal once every two days” and you respond by saying “I’m glad you’ve eaten well”, the discussion will soon become difficult and  inevitably, some of the hungry people are going to get angry. Of all the arguments that amply justify the rage that has swept across the country, I believe that this one sits alongside the 30 years of social violence and three months of police violence that you will be made to pay for. In the face of people like you, who destroy the meaning of words — and therefore the possibility of discussion —  the only remaining solution, I’m afraid to say, is to chase you out.

Not long ago, you declared that: “Repression, police violence, such words are unacceptable under the rule of law.” But Mr Macron, it is you that is unacceptable. Why, you ask? Because under the rule of law, it is not these words which are unacceptable, but the acts themselves. After one death* 22 eyes blinded and five hands decapitated [in the yellow wests protests], you re-adjust your wig, powder your cheeks, and say, “I don’t like the term repression, because it doesn’t correspond to the reality.” The question — which takes on almost psychiatric proportions — is in which reality do you really reside?

The beginnings of a response can be found in an article published several days ago in Le Gorafi [a French website publishing satirical ‘fake news’] with the headline “The interior ministry’s committee of health advisors confirms that LBDs [a less-lethal hand-held weapon used by French police] are good for your health”. The article goes on to say the following: “Christophe Castaner [the Minister of the Interior] rejoiced at the results of a test carried out by his committee of health advisors and signed an ordnance criminalising any counter claims as to the reliability of the test”.

Mr Macron, do you see how thin the line is that separates you from Le Gorafi? You are the ‘gorafisation’ of the world personified. Except, Le Gorafi is supposed to be funny. In reality, no one wants to live in a ‘gorafi-ed’ world. Therefore, if Macronism is ‘gorafism’ but for real, you’ll have to understand that we must adjust our means accordingly. And if it is impossible to bring you to reason, we will just have to send you packing.

All the editorial squeals about your electoral legitimacy can do nothing against this simple and logical demand.  In truth, you have never been legitimate. Your real electoral score is 10%. Taking into account the rate of abstention and tactical voting  — and here we know that almost half of your electorate did not vote for you or your ideas but because they were sufficiently scared of the alternative [Marine Le Pen] to opt for the “belt and braces” option [Macron] — 10% is your score from the first round [of the 2017 presidential election].

But even if we accord you the fable of electoral legitimacy, none of it remains the moment you make the people into a state enemy, perhaps even a personal enemy, or at least the moment you make war against them. Do you realise to what extent you are becoming the subject of international shame? The Guardian, the New York Times, and even the Financial Times, the European Council, Amnesty International, the UN: all of them are shocked by your violence. Even [Turkish president Recep Tayip] Erdogan and [deputy prime minister of Italy Matteo] Salvini allowed themselves the pleasure of giving you a lesson on the subject of democracy and moderation. This shows how far you have fallen.

But it is not only cries of shame that arrive for you from abroad, there are also cries of hope for us. The Algerian people are showing us how to get rid of an illegitimate power. It is a beautiful spectacle, as admirable as the yellow vests.  A recent placard — I don’t remember if it was Algerian or French and it is of no importance either way — proclaimed: “Macron supports Boutef; the Algerians support the yellow vests; international solidarity”. And it is precisely that: international solidarity. Boutef soon got ousted as leader, Macron won’t be far behind.

In François Ruffin’s documentary [about the yellow vests], Gilles Perret, an elderly man, more the age for crosswords than rioting, suggests mounting two by three metre metal sheets on tractors or bulldozers so as to push back the police rather than the other way round. Not a bad idea. Another man says he started reading the constitution at the age of 46 despite having never read a book in his life.

Mr Macron, I can see you hurrying to tell us that this is precisely what we should do — read the constitution and forget all the silly ideas about metal sheets. But did you know that in reality these are two very complementary activities? To be precise, I would have to say that one does not go without the other: no constitutional discussion can take place without first bulldozing clear the way.

This is what the yellow vests have understood so well, and it is why they are in a position to make history. In a certain way, Mr Macron, you keep asking them to. By locking up a young man who was simply playing a drum, in allowing your police to crush an arrestee’s glasses under their boots or to assault people in wheelchairs — in wheelchairs! — you are furnishing images that will go down in history, and you are calling the great winds of history upon yourself.

It could just be that you and those like you, who think you are at the cutting edge, will end up swept away by those winds. That is how the demolishers generally wind up. For that is what you are: demolishers. You are destroying work, you are destroying local authorities, you  are destroying lives, and you are destroying the planet. While you may not have any legitimacy left, the people are entirely legitimate in resisting their own demolition. You should fear that, on a wave of fury, their desire may just culminate in the demolition of the demolishers.

But seeing as no one wants such an end, there remains one simple, logical solution that would preserve everyone’s integrity: Mr Macron, it is time to leave.

Mr Macron, hand over the keys.

* Between the public reading of this letter and its transcription, the line up for the “Big Debate with public intellectuals” was revealed. It appears that Patrick Boucheron will not be in attendance. But his stated ‘Macronism’ and his declared contempt for the Yellow Vests mean that a correction of the underlying sentiments expressed in this letter is unnecessary. Likewise for the other two clowns.
*In response to the Yellow Vests movement the French government is passing a law to restrain the right to protest. More can be read here
*In October 2017, shortly after being elected, Macron made good on his campaign promise to scrap the long-standing wealth tax on capital. 
* Lordon is referring to 80 year old Zineb Redouane, who died on 3 December 2018 after being hit in the head by a police tear gas canister whilst closing her shutters during protests in central Marseille. However, reports link 10 deaths to the protests. 

Translated by Gabriel Bristow 

Published 23rd March 2019

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