Speaking Truth to Power(lessness)

One of the more remarkable episodes in the recent French presidential election, and with wider lessons, was a heated debate in Amiens between Emmanuel Macron and workers at a Whirlpool factory under threat of closure.

While Macron was holding talks with city and union leaders in the chamber of commerce, Madame Le Pen arrived unexpectedly outside the factory gates, took a number of selfies with workers, promised unspecified special measures to save the factory, denounced Macron and was driven off in her election bus.

After his meetings, Macron arrived at the same factory gates to face booing and jeering and cries of ‘Le Pen for President’. After explaining why he had met the leaders ahead of the workers (because, he said, leaders of a trade union that behaves responsibly should be engaged with), he promised to answer all questions, and he did for an hour. The following is my attempt to summarise the subsequent questions and answers; it involves some rearranging.

Q: Why don’t you close the French border, for instance to imports from Poland where wages were low.
A: I won’t close the borders or roll back globalisation because it will cost French workers thousand of jobs if they work for firms that need to be able to export.

Q: There no work, it’s too late for us to find other work, we are unemployable.
A: Absolutely not true. There is work but it is different work and it requires retraining.

Q: Why are companies allowed to pay dividends at the same time as they are closing factories?
A: Stopping dividends, or banning factory closures is not possible. It would end foreign investment into France, and all the jobs those investments bring.

Q: Our factory needs special measures.
A: It is the responsibility of the workers and managers to make a success of the business. It’s not the responsibility of the Finance Minister, who should firmly and even-handedly apply policies and laws that support long-term economic development. Even with the best policies and laws, unfortunately some factories will still close.

Macron’s reaction to almost every single thing said to him is an impassioned ‘Non, non, non.’ It is difficult to think of other examples, anywhere, of a politician, during an election, in front of the television cameras, telling voters he would not do what they asked because it would not be in their interests, but would instead support the policies the voters blamed for their difficulties. I won’t do things that won’t work, he says at one point. That’s not the policy I support, he says at another.

45 minutes of the discussion is to be found on the last video link on this page of the En Marche! party website. The first 9 minutes is an argument over why Macron went first to the chamber of commerce, and why he waited until the second round of the election to visit factories such as Whirlpool’s; the policy debate begins after that. In parts of the recording, Macron plunges into the crowd and the exchanges can’t be heard very clearly.

By Cathal Guiomard

Cathal Guiomard is a Lecturer in Aviation Management in DCU. Between 2006 and 2014, he was Ireland's Commissioner for Aviation.

One reply on “Speaking Truth to Power(lessness)”

What’s of interest here is the contrast in approach between Le Pen and Macron to the Whirlpool workers. The FN leader is a seasoned politician and, by this account, treated the meeting primarily as a campaign stop for a photo opportunity. Macron chose to engage, for over an hour, with the workers’ concerns about their jobs and their assumptions, however misplaced, about who was to blame for their economic insecurity. I’d lay a bet he came away from the encounter with more votes than she did.

Populist rhetoric has its comforting aspects. Within political science there’s a body of literature to suggest populism is really lightweight politics that readily combines itself with strong ideologies, whether right or left-leaning. It is argued that mainstream parties in liberal democracies have too easily adopted variants of populist policies both for the sake of convenience and to garner voter approval over their establishment rivals. The water charges debacle in Ireland provides a recent case in point. The problem of course is that this diffusion of populist policies across all parties within a political culture just makes the populists’ case for them. Mass mobilisation works; the establishment are all ‘bad’ in intent and interests; only the people, under the leadership of the mass mobilisers and as defined by them to their own political ends, are ‘good’ and pure.

The antidote to populism is for the defenders of liberal democracy, and its institutions, to engage directly with people’s concerns, treat them seriously and with respect. Respect means pointing out, as Macron appeared to do in this instance, errors of fact or unwarranted assumptions. It may be easier to pander to ideas that are just simply wrong, or to be defensive about the flaws in democratic institutions or political systems instead of acknowledging them. In the long run though, as we keep finding out to our cost, that way works for neither the economy nor society.

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