Edwy Plenel: An Incendiary Government

The fable of the attack on the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital by demonstrators on May Day is one lie too many for a government that denies the reality of its unpopularity. Its authoritarian drift makes it an accomplice of the worst: the ruin of all democratic ethics.

This presidency would like to stir up anger towards it that it would not be able to stir up otherwise. The lie about the untraceable “attack” on the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital by a horde of violent demonstrators cannot be blamed solely on the incompetence of the Interior Minister Christophe Castaner. Repeated on a loop by the government, up to the Prime Minister himself, through the Minister of Health and the director of AP-HP, this is only the umpteenth provocation of a government that has never ceased, since the emergence of the Yellow Vests, to violate those who dispute it, by the words of propaganda as well as by acts of repression.

Emmanuel Macron’s demagogic response to the accidental fire at Notre-Dame of Paris will remain as a metaphor for what has become of his presidency, contrary to his original promise of a “deep democratic revolution”: an incendiary government. Dismissing with contempt popular expectations, which led to the tumults of a policy without spirit or height, reduced in sum to the ephemeral and to the contingent – when he would become solely accountable for the essential and durable, from the outset he seized upon this event, as if it was a terrible national and moral test, in the same way as a terrorist attack would have been.

Like the precedents of the American September 11th with the perdition of the Patriot Act, or the French Bataclan with the error of the deprivation of nationality, he since then felt legitimate to continue to impose itself, in the denial of the democratic demand raised for six months by the Yellow Vests social movement. Locked in his presidential ivory tower, he persists in imposing his own agenda, refusing any real dialogue, delegitimising the popular protest, calling for his police repression, and excluding any talk of appeasement. Kindling class hatred to an invisible people, he maintains fear instead of concord.

According to an old meaning, incendiary also qualifies, says “Larousse”, as “what is intended or aims to stir up the spirits, to incite revolt or sedition”. Since the Yellow Vests have imposed themselves in the public debate, the authorities have constantly wanted to discredit and delegitimise them. From the “crowd full of hatred” to the “bratty yellow vest”, they have been given the status of ignorant and dangerous, obscure and menacing plebs, reduced to violence, incidents and excesses, in the stubborn ignorance of the original and unprecedented political dynamics of this self-organised movement.

Lies and repression are the two sides of the same politics of humiliation and denial of those who, taking their citizenship seriously, have come out of their isolation and loneliness, making their way to each other in order to gather at the roundabouts of the common causes of equality. The official speeches that deny this reality, to the point of shamelessly inventing a black legend for it, accompany the concrete will to erase its public expression by the questioning of a fundamental right – that of demonstrating, challenging, and protesting.

“We have a press that no longer seeks the truth,” daringly declared the head of state in late July 2018, when he put himself forward as the shield of Alexander Benalla. The contrast between the protection afforded to him, for which the President has consistently demanded indulgence, and the repression constantly demanded against the Yellow Vests, up to the trivialisation unprecedented police violence, is enough to say to what extent it was an antiphrasis, that of a government that fears the truth to the point of denying it.

Lying seems to have become second nature for him, widely documented on “Mediapart”. Since then, new examples have been added to the inventory, from weapons sales for the dirty war in Yemen to the various “fake news” about the demonstrations, including the latest one on May 1st, passing through the refusal to acknowledge the extreme-right past of the top of the list of LREM in the European elections [Nathalie Loiseau – ed]. Unusual for a supposed government party, the unethical use of social networks by the riposte cells of the presidential movement aggravates this climate of denying the truth in favour of rumours, slander, insults.

Macronism adds the permanent use of forgery to a regime of the permanent coup d’etat. No more common reason, no more shared truth, no more controlled reality, only the affirmation that will consolidate power, even if it has no veracity, counts. It’s not just about lying to hide, but lying to erase. “The difference between the traditional lie and the modern lie is most often the difference between hiding and destroying,” wrote the philosopher Hannah Arendt in Truth and Politics (1967).

In Lies in Politics (1969) which followed, she stressed the harmful role for democracy of these “problem-solving specialists” who meddle in the heart of the state by “being convinced that politics is nothing more than a variety of public relations”. In a prophetic warning, Arendt remarked how much these advisers, communicators, expert manoeuvres, and cynical strategists – whose Macronian entourage from Strauss-Kahnism offers many specimens – “have something in common with outright liars: they strive to get rid of the facts and are convinced that the thing is possible because it is about contingent realities”.

This is how, under this government, the French presidency insists on denying what all human rights defenders ascertain, whether French (from the Defender of Rights, to the President of the CNCDH) or foreigners (from the Council of Europe, to the United Nations rapporteurs): the dangerous regression of liberties in a country that prided itself on having declared the rights of man and citizen. Since then, the symbolic violence of lies and the real violence of transgressive repression, without too much restraint or precaution, heats the country to boiling point instead of seeking appeasement.

Those who parade with yellow vests will be the “accomplices of the worst,” said Emmanuel Macron once. The formula can easily be returned to him: a government that, in order to stay afloat, ruins all democratic ethics, lies repeatedly, violates liberties, disqualifies its own people, slanders its opposition, assumes its indifference to injustice, pushes the police force to the brink, does not say a word about the demonstrators seriously wounded, incites expeditious condemnations, and never has a word of compassion or empathy is an accomplice of the worst …

This president behaves as if his victory in 2017 had offered him a blank check for five years. But this is how he trips himself up during a headlong rush dangerous for democracy itself, its culture, its institutions, its equilibrium. A race towards the unknown that does not exclude the abyss, because in his narcissistic blindness, he is doubly mistaken: concerning the essence of democracy; concerning the nature of his election.

Democracy is not that “gentle tyranny” that Tocqueville already foresaw, where the people are invited to leave their servitude only to choose their master before being dismissed again. It is a fragile ecosystem that presupposes separate powers, active counter-powers and, above all, the permanent expression of the people themselves, guaranteed by respect for fundamental rights, without the exercise of which the right to vote is nothing more than a fiction: the right to assemble, to express oneself, to protest, to inform oneself.

As for the 2017 election, for a lack of choice in the face of the extreme right, it has precisely invested in this president with an unlikely election of what he does not want to take into account: the deaf French democratic crisis, this “crisis of the political representation that become endemic and quasi-structural”, according to the recent assessment of the researcher Anne Muxel (History of a 2015-2018 Electoral Evolution, Classics Garnier, with Bruno Cautrès). Being far from curbing this crisis, the new government has reinforced it, she says, failing to have taken into account the essential event that his victory masked: the unprecedented rise in abstention and the importance of recourse to the white/blank vote.

Politicised voters who are “far from the political game”, a “democratic malaise”, a “demand for the democratisation of the very workings of political representation”: so many formulas to summarise the mandate coming from the “coconut shy” of 2017, a thousand leagues from the egocentric personal power embodied by Emmanuel Macron in his demand for a Jupiterian presidency. The Yellow Vests, who the government and its intellectual relays have constantly categorised as extreme-right, are primarily the political and social expression of this abstentionist reality: a desire for democracy.

If, beyond their insufficiencies or their shenanigans, the substantial economic and social measures obtained by the stubborn mobilisation of the Yellow Vests – the effectiveness of which stems from the powerlessness of the trade unions – are not enough to calm their anger, it is precisely because their movement carries the democratic question left fallow for two years. What unifies it, in its diversity of environments and sensibilities, is this acute awareness that the promise of a “deep democratic revolution” – which hasn’t been fulfilled, even worse, wrecked and renounced – degenerates before our eyes into a deep democratic regression.

The appearance of the Yellow Vests coincided with the release, in the autumn of 2018, of the film of Pierre Schoeller “The People and Their King”, which recounts the rapid disaffection of the people of 1789 for Louis XVI, leading to the drastic downgrading of the Ancien Régime. Because he refuses to question the exhausted elective monarchy on which he sits, because he prefers the illusory comfort of lies and repression, Emmanuel Macron takes the risk of becoming a king without a people.

Edwy Plenel, Mediapart

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