Good reasons why Macron is feeling the heat

With protesters on the streets, a debate on freedom and an election in April, the French President is being judged

On his working holiday at the Fort de Bregancon, the splendid Mediterranean retreat of French heads of state, Emmanuel Macron may be focusing some thought on a winning strategy for next year’s presidential elections.

But a revival of intense debate about the extent and limits of a key pillar of the French republican ideal – freedom – also deserves his attention.

Mr Macron, fighting to keep Covid-19 under control amid rising infection rates, especially in coastal areas popular with tourists, has thrust himself to the heart of the discussion.

At play are the competing demands of individual liberty and collective responsibility, leading to more than a suspicion of double standards on how far the freedom of expression should reasonably go.

Over the past three weekends, a relatively small but growing band of demonstrators has taken to French streets to condemn the president’s policy of demanding proof of vaccination for entry to cinemas, museums, restaurants and other public spaces, and access to transport. Even more controversially, those working in health care must be jabbed by September 15. The threat of dismissal has been lifted but those refusing to comply face having their pay stopped.

The protests assemble disparate forces: far left and far right, anti-vaccination militants, former gilets jaunes (the yellow-vest anti-government movement that evaporated as the first lockdown began) and people who honestly believe liberty is under threat. As invariably happens in France, peaceful protests are infiltrated by hoodlums intent on vandalising property and attacking police.

After a sluggish and at time confused start, France’s vaccination roll-out has gathered impressive pace. Mr Macron’s tough stance has sharply boosted the take-up and this week he turned to Instagram and TikTok to invite questions from young people.

The hope is that the benefits of vaccination, including less severe symptoms if infected, will outweigh the effects of persistent spread of the virus. The fear is that in the name of freedom, enough people will remain hostile to jabs to prolong the crisis.

Central as Covid-19 is to government thinking, Mr Macron has other obstacles to clear if he is to persuade voters he is a president for Monsieur et Madame Tout le Monde – in other words everyone, not just the rich he is accused by leftwing critics of favouring.

In an offshoot of the debate on freedom, legal proceedings have been launched on his behalf against Michel-Ange Flori, a street artist from the southern port of Toulon, for posting a picture depicting him as Adolf Hitler.

The comparison is not only offensive but as grotesquely wrong-headed as the adoption by some protesters of yellow stars, a symbol of the hideous Nazi occupation of France in the Second World War, to illustrate the supposed suppression of freedom under Covid-19 rules.

Lawyers for Mr Macron and his party, La Republique en Marche (Republic on the Move), claim the portrayal of him as the Fuhrer amounts to a public insult.

And so it does. But let us pause for a moment. Would “public insult” not also accurately describe the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons mocking Islam and the Prophet Mohammed? Yet Mr Macron could not have been more resolute in its defence. “We will not give up on cartoons and drawings, even if others back down," he said after the killing last October of Samuel Paty, a teacher who had innocently used examples to illustrate a class discussion on free expression.

An overwhelming majority of French Muslims undoubtedly share the general disgust at a murder of singular senselessness and brutality, committed by a radicalised 18-year-old misfit of Chechen origins. But they also bitterly resent contemptuous representation of their faith for public amusement.

Many feel it is entirely valid to oppose both the Macron caricature and the objectionable cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo. Others argue that true freedom of expression includes the right to offend and that neither should be forbidden.

Perhaps a reasonable middle course is to respect both the right to publish contentious material, provided it does not incite hatred and violence, and the right to take offence short of resorting to unlawful reprisals.

The least acceptable option, surely, is to pick and choose. Can anyone, even a president, fairly invoke the law to challenge one tasteless affront to decency while passionately defending the other?

France is not alone in having to grapple with difficult questions on where the line is crossed between legitimate criticism or ridicule and unacceptable insult.

In an age of social media, users feel empowered to shoot from the hip without necessarily engaging the brain.

As a Briton who also possesses French citizenship and divides time between the two countries, I detect echoes from across the English Channel. In the UK, Brexiters and Remainers toss appalling vitriol at one another. Fascism is so randomly used as a term of abuse that it no longer shocks. Anti-vaxers and anti-lockdown elements, and those who broadly accept the weight of scientific thinking, could be from different planets.

But unless the campaign against health passes and obligatory vaccination gathers significantly more strength, Mr Macron is entitled to feel he will be elected or rejected in April next year on the basis of how well he is judged to have handled the economy, managed a health crisis and coped with everyday concerns about immigration, security, pensions and public services.

Opponents on the far right and conventional left and right will roundly attack his record on all fronts. But differences on freedom in its various forms, while notionally a cherished principle, are perhaps unlikely to swing a presidential vote.

This does not mean, however, that the issue is unimportant. Mr Macron gives every impression that he cares how he is seen not only within France but beyond its borders. His reputation would suffer no harm if he drew the sting from charges of hypocrisy by ordering as discreet a burial as possible of pointless legal action against Michel Ange-Flori.

Published: August 4th 2021, 2:00 PM
Colin Randall

Colin Randall

Colin Randall is a former executive editor of The National and writes from France and Britain