Manny Macron has always identified with Napoleon Bonaparte, but until recently he indulged that aspirational self-image only in the privacy of his palace. Lately, however, he has become more open about it, clearly wishing his electorate to see the similarities.
Judging by the ‘Macron out’ demonstrations spreading all over France, the electorate fails to discern any. That’s not fair because similarities do exist, two of them: Boney and Manny share a fondness for older wives (much older, in Manny’s case, so he outdid his role model there) and a hatred of Britain.
C’est, as they say in France, tout. Yet Manny is using every trick of both direct and subliminal communication to help voters see him as today’s Napoleon. If Boney were alive today, he’d be just like Manny, goes the encoded message.
It’s tempting to accuse Macron of megalomania, and perhaps that’s part of it. But most of it is politicking.
The presidential election is coming, and Manny is neck and neck with Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, a right-wing (as discrete from conservative) group. Since Manny’s tenure has been rather the opposite of a rip-roaring success, and his handling of Covid downright disastrous, there’s every possibility he may lose.
His core support is more or less secure, if only because they’d as soon vote for Le Pen as they would for syphilis. But the periphery around the core looks shaky. Hence Manny must seduce enough right-wingers to siphon some votes from Marine. This need explains all his recent posturing.
For example, he has done an about-face on Putin – from fierce critic to effusive admirer. Why? Because French right-wingers are Putinistas to a man. The Kremlin is openly financing the National Rally, and no bad word about the KGB colonel is tolerated in those circles.
(I found it out the hard way the summer before last, when I recorded a 90-minute interview with the right-wing radio station Radio Courtoisie – in French too, which taxed my modest linguistic ability no end. Then, 10 minutes before air time, the station manager spiked the broadcast, explaining that it would upset the Russian embassy. No one was left in doubt as to who called the shots in right-wing circles.)
Napoleon is another holy relic with Marine’s voters. Left-wingers tend to be uncomfortable with some of Napoleon’s bellicose peccadillos, especially his attempts to secure new colonies for France at the expense of the kind of people who are now in fashion, and also his tendency to have POWs shot out of hand.
But Napoleon’s muscular patriotism appeals to the Right, as does his commitment to making France great by controlling Europe and keeping la perfide Albion out. Marine’s voters tend to equate goodness with greatness, greatness with size, and they are smarting from the realisation that, in that sense, France is no longer great. (They can’t appreciate the senses in which she still is.)
That’s why Manny felt duty-bound to deliver a rousing oration at the celebration of the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death the other day. “We love Napoleon,” declared Manny, “because his life gives us a taste of what is possible if we accept the invitation to take risks.”
Actually, the taste is quite acrid. When Napoleon accepted “the invitation to take risks”, he twice abandoned his army to its fate, first in Egypt, then in Russia; led over a million young Frenchmen to their deaths; had his navy routed by Nelson at Trafalgar; lost every battle his troops fought against Wellington, including the ultimate one at Waterloo; ended his life as a British captive on a godforsaken island.
True, in between those debacles he did conquer most of Europe, and the Right are still dining on that legacy. Napoleon’s hatred of the British also appeals to them, which is why Manny has to demonstrate that little predilection too.
Alas, he falls short of his hero’s scope, quite pathetically. If Napoleon managed to blockade all of Britain, Manny merely tried to do that to the Channel island of Jersey, a British dependency. And even in that modest undertaking he failed, when his flotilla of fishing boats escorted by a warship was chased away by the Royal Navy.
But Manny didn’t really want to blockade Jersey. He just wanted to take a bow to Marine’s voters, and especially those Gaullists who can’t decide whom they despise more, Manny or Marine.
Macron has also sharpened his anti-Muslim and anti-immigration rhetoric, without giving any tangible indication of what, if anything, he is going to do about it. But Manny isn’t about doing. He is about sending appropriate signals to appropriate groups.
If his most serious opposition came from the communist party, he’d be quoting Marx, Lenin and Gramsci in every speech. He’d also be photographed having a meaningful dialogue with a bust of Maurice Thorez, as he was snapped talking to a marble Napoleon the other day.
P.S. I’m happy to report that it’s not just oral but also written commentary on football matches that refines my knowledge of English. Thus The Telegraph: “Sergio Ramos… is, of course, not adverse to the dark arts himself.” One can only hope that those on the receiving end didn’t suffer any averse consequences. In the same paper: “Tuchel… scored any talk about… a goalless draw.” Good job then that his team scorned two goals.