Emmanuel Macron made two remarkable speeches on two successive days in Paris last week. They were both funeral orations, the first at a ceremony in the courtyard of the Hôtel des Invalides, to honour the passing of Jean d’Ormesson, a patrician writer, senior member of the Académie Française and well known public figure who died on Monday, the second at a ceremony on the steps of the Eglise de la Madeleine, to honour the memory of the uniquely French rock star Johnny Hallyday, who died just the next day.
These two very different but equally famous figures in French society were both judged worthy of a national farewell ceremony, a more solemn one for the man of literature and a popular one for the popular singer. Once such occasions are organised, it is the task of the Head of State to give public expression to the country’s sense of gratitude and grief. On both occasions, Macron acquitted himself with panache and style, using both speeches to conjure up the unity of the nation around two remarkable men, but at the same time, subtly casting himself in their reflected glory and revealing a lot about his own values and ambitions.
The theme of his tribute to Jean d’Ormesson was, unsurprisingly, literature. Macron referred to famous French writers of the past and linked them to d’Ormesson in what France, over and above the divisions within its society, “treasures as its most precious and enduring feature: its literature”. “The very essence of France” he went on, "is its love of literature and its affection for its writers”.
It is true of course that the French expect their political leaders to be steeped in culture, knowing their classics and skilled in expressing themselves both orally and in writing. De Gaulle was famous for his seemingly spontaneous and often colourful turns of phrase during his legendary press conferences. He started his memoirs with the memorable sentence: “All my life I have had my own vision of France”. (“Toute ma vie je me suis fait une certaine idée de la France”). Pompidou was a literature scholar and loved poetry. Mitterand was a compulsive reader and a prolific writer. Any candidate for the presidency, even the least literary, has to write at least one book to be taken seriously. Macron is no exception. In a recent interview, his wife, Brigitte, said that she could easily have imagined her husband as a successful writer, but never thought he would go into politics. He is said to devote his rare moments of leisure to writing.
This being said, some of course would take issue with the idea that literature and writers are “the very essence of France”, but Macron was surely making a political point too. Especially at a time when the results of the PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy) comparative study that were released last week, put France in 34th position, out of 50 comparable countries, for reading skills among 10 year olds and one of only two European countries to have a lower score than five years ago, when the last test was run. Jean-Michel Blanquer, the Minister of Education, made an appearance on prime time news last week to say what the government is doing about it: cutting Ist year primary school class sizes by half in underprivileged areas, as Macron promised during his presidential campaign, and concentrating on what he called the four basic skills of reading, writing, arithmetic and “respect for others ". He made it clear too that the “pedagogical freedom” hitherto enjoyed by teachers in the choice of teaching methods must take second place to the imperative of ensuring that no child leaves primary school without mastering these basic skills. As a sign of his determination he announced that primary school teachers would be required henceforth to give their pupils one dictation every day. The clear message is that the quest for integration, inclusion and national unity starts in the first year of primary school with the mastering of language, numeracy and social awareness.
On Saturday, in his brief tribute to the popular idol, Johnny Hallyday, Macron himself returned to the theme of national unity. “Johnny cut through”, he said, “everything that divides our society, expressing emotion that is one of those energies that defines a people”.
But It was surely in another part of his tribute that Macron was the most revealing: “That this young man, … should have sought inspiration in the blues of America’s black community and the rock and roll of Nashville and made them popular in every part of France was highly improbable and yet, it is a (typical) French destiny. He changed the words and the music, worked with the very best….. ".
No politician crafts a speech without giving careful consideration to its possible political impact, however subtle and well disguised, and certainly not a young Head of State in the first year of a mandate to profoundly transform his country. In speaking about the “improbability” of importing new ideas into France, and persuading the French to adopt them regardless of their job, social class or where they live, he was not only talking about Johnny Hallyday. He was also, I think, talking about his own vision for changing the prevalent political discourse and culture and ultimately France itself. “I hope that Johnny’s improbable destiny will also be mine”, he seemed to be saying to a crowd of almost one million people at the ceremony and fifteen million following on television. I imagine the subtext as: “You believed in Johnny and you loved his songs. Listen to my song – and make it yours too.”