With Emmanuel Macron’s administration encountering a new wave of resistance to its neoliberal reforms, Carla Ibled, PERC doctoral student, explores Macron’s vision of a “start-up nation” via the rhetoric of his speeches.
Thursday 5th December saw France brought to a standstill by a long-awaited interprofessional strike, marking an important step in the struggle between Emmanuel Macron’s presidency and the unions. Many, the French government included, expect the strike to be long and sustained. It has brought together workers from the public and private sectors, including transport (from Paris’ RATP to the air controllers), health, education, broadcast services, the energy and telecommunication sectors, lawyers and magistrates, student unions, refuse collectors and haulage contractors, firefighters and even the police. The strike is supported by the gilets jaunes movement, which recently celebrated its first anniversary. Unsurprisingly, comparisons have been drawn to the 1995 general strike that seriously weakened Jacques Chirac’s first presidency.
As in 1995, the 2019 strike is specifically targeting the French government’s ambition to reform France’s retirement system – this time by harmonising it across the public and private sectors, and by introducing some level of capitalisation. But it is also symptomatic of a deeper rejection of Macron’s policies, which have been repeatedly accused of favouring the richest at the expense of the poorest. This rejection is combined with a genuine irritation with the personality of a president who often appears disdainful and arrogant, shocking the public with his thoughtless and scornful comments (from calling the female workers of a slaughterhouse “illiterate” to contrasting the “Gauls who are resistant to change” with the (industrious) “Lutheran people”).
This piece, then, takes the occasion to go back to some of Macron’s most emblematic speeches and interviews to discuss how they reflect and construct his worldview as what Forbes hailed as a “leader of the free world” and how his rhetoric is impregnated with some of the central tropes of the Chicago School. From this perspective, Macron symbolises a new inflection of the French implementation of neoliberalism, through which neoliberalism comes to be understood not solely as a socio-economic programme to be enforced but, more radically, as a culture, “as a way of being and thinking”.
I focus on four speeches: the June 2017 speech given at the Vivatech show; the July 2018 address to the French Parliament; the September 2018 announcement of the national strategy to prevent poverty; and the February 2019 speech at the international show of agriculture. What is striking is the consistency of the message conveyed in these speeches spread across Macron’s two-and-half-years presidency: France needs to adapt to the new world and thus needs to give up on its outdated regulative framework. It needs to become what Macron has famously called a “start-up nation”.
Macron’s steadfastness manifests itself in the recurrent (not to say obsessional) use of certain keywords like “transformation”, “innovation”, “rights and duties” or “protection”. For instance, the word “transformation” and its verbal derivatives are repeated no less than twenty-six times in the thirsty-three minutes ‘start-up nation’ speech at the Vivatech 2017 entrepreneurial show – along with twelve occurrences of “change” and nine of “revolution”. What Macron tirelessly hammers out is that France has entered a pivotal moment of “brutal changes”, of “ruptures” and “disruptions” – the unsettling effects of the innovations brought about by the tech revolution.
On one hand is the world of “yesterday”, with its particular “jobs” and “language”, which he explicitly identifies with the welfare state of the 20th century. This world is now gone. It cannot be adapted to the new reality. Those who, in denial, attempt to hold it back and to freeze it, are resisting the inexorability of change; they “refuse the world as it is transforming”. Macron castigates stasis and immobility. For instance, the ‘national strategy against poverty’ speech blames France’s social crisis on the rigid “statutes” that, Macron believes, still stratify French society.
Yet, the target of this implicit appeal to France’s revolutionary past is not the 21st-century-republican nobility but the protected (or ‘special’) work regimes from which some nationalised sectors (like the railways and energy sector) benefit, as well the unions. Similarly, the ‘Vivatech’ speech denounces the popular resentment in France for those who succeed – a “jealousy” that materialises in the “fetters” and “tax burden” that restrain the creative power of start-ups. Generally, all four speeches deplore the nefarious “rigidity” of French regulations.
On the other hand is the fabulous world of “hyper-innovation” – a world of perpetual activity, but also a world characterised by its transience and fragility, so great is the threat to miss the opportunity of reaching it. Earning this world means France must whole-heartedly “embrace the change”, must be “open to disruption and [the] new models”. There is a strong sense of urgency, as Macron fully understands that entrepreneurs “cannot wait”. The President calls for an “acceleration in the economy”. As he repeats throughout the Vivatech hyperbolic speech, one needs to go “faster, stronger”. One needs to go beyond our present limits to “win the new frontiers of the 21st century”.
In order to do so, France will give the “liberty to do” (or, in the speech to the Parliament, will “liberate investment” from its fetters) so as to attract “the pioneers, the innovators, the entrepreneurs of the whole world”. It will become the messianic country of “hyper-innovation” where “a new future”, as well as a “new mobility, new energy will be invented”. Earning this world also requires transforming society “in its entirety”. In an uncanny echo of Margaret Thatcher’s famous statement that the “object is to change the soul”, Macron proclaims that “what we have to construct together is an in-depth revolution of our models: our models of thought, our economic and social organisation, our way of behaving”.
The platform state
The first step of this “in-depth” change is the remodelling of the state to make it “espouse” digital technology’s “methods, facilities and efficiencies”. As announced – in English – to the foreign ‘pioneers’, Macron wants “France to be a ‘start-up nation’, meaning both a nation that works with and for the start-ups, but also a nation that thinks and moves like a start-up”. Or in “one word” (and still in English): “Entrepreneur is the new France”. The ‘start-up’ entrepreneurial state is a variation on Foucault’s liberal self-limiting state trying to find the economical balance in the art of governing, between the too-little and the too-much. It is agile and effectively targets and calibrates its intervention. It is not the physically omnipresent mammoth state, with its luxurious trail of intricate regulations, that France has known until now.
As Macron keeps repeating across the four speeches, the state is here to “facilitate” and “accompany” initiatives. It must be understood “as a platform not as a constraint”. Facilitating means simplifying the otherwise too complex and bureaucratic French regulative framework. It means nurturing enterprise via tax-breaks, and generally through reducing “the cost of failure”. But it also means having, as Macron claims to have, a “direct understanding” of “risk-takers” and their needs.
The productive tension between immobility and activity is applied to all areas of state action and particularly to the “national strategy of preventing and fighting poverty”. Interestingly, a year after the Vivatech speech and amidst increasing social discontent, this speech places a renewed emphasis on the notion of “protection” and on Macron’s putative ambition to create the “welfare state of the 21st century”. The target is what he calls “social fatality” – that is, another type of stillness caused by the structural obstacles that keep people in the social conditions in which they were born. The policies he advocates must thus contribute to liberating the young talented “Mozarts” who currently cannot structurally emerge, by helping them to transcend their circumstances through education and professional training.
There are however some important caveats. First, as the Vivatech speech had already announced, Macron’s policies are about protecting the individuals themselves through “training and retraining”, and not protecting “the jobs of yesterday”. Mirroring Friedrich Hayek’s analyses, this indicates that it is not about protecting (or shielding) individuals from adverse economic conjunctures, but just ensuring life-long adaptation to disruption.
Secondly, Macron suggests that education and training are sufficient mechanisms to re-equilibrate structural inequalities so that all social actors are considered equal players in the economic game. If such a logic is carried to its conclusion, subsequent social success and failure become the result of personal talent or failure. Responsibility comes to fall on the individual and not on unequal social structures.
Thirdly, mobility and industry implicitly come to constitute the measure of what Macron means by “dignity”. People thus need to be nudged toward activity. In another words, absolute poverty should be tackled but people should never be made too comfortable (or enabled to live “better” within their current circumstances) so that they continue to strive to ameliorate their living conditions. This is very explicitly the aim of Macron’s “revenu universel d’activité” (universal activity income), which, like the British ‘universal credit’, is supposed to merge all social allowance, but retains ‘activity’ as a sine-qua-non requirement. What Macron’s policies are supposed to implant in the long term is abhorrence of any ‘dependence’ on the state’s largesse. The “start-up nation” will be a nation of self-made men.
Mobilising the nation
The Macronian imaginary that transpires in these speeches emerges as a combination of revolutionary and conservative claims: the Silicon Valley-inspired advocacy of “hyper-innovation” and “start-ups” cohabits with a defence of “right and duties” and “values”. The social model called for is bizarrely reminiscent of the paternalistic capitalism of the 19th century. Despite the incredulity that now surrounds the mythical ‘trickle-down effect’, Macron still seems to believe in the natural redistribution of wealth that derives from the benevolence of enlightened and responsible employers and entrepreneurs. He particularly likes his metaphor of the “premiers de cordées” (literally ‘the first in the rope line’) who pull the rest of society up with them toward new heights, and who should therefore be trusted, not be impeded.
Moreover, the “start-up nation” is entirely compatible with “the republican order” – an order that can violently exclude those who do not comply. The tone of Macron’s speeches is strikingly martial: everything is turned into a “fight” or a “battle”, and the ideas of the mobilisation of the nation and the necessity of being a “leader” are omnipresent. This rhetoric is a stark reminder that the force of the state remains behind the implementation of the Macronian project (as the seriousness of the injuries caused by state repression of the gilets jaunes amply testifies to).
The warlike tone is coupled with a strong messianism, a sense that France can become a leading light in the “civilizational, cultural challenge” of today. France has the potential to become the “incarnation” of change and “the country of the revolution of entrepreneurship, of innovation and of the democratic revolution that accompanies it”. It can bring back hope to those who “didn’t believe any longer”.
I would suggest that this messianic dimension should not be underestimated, as it points towards the appeal of Macron’s imaginary – especially through its emphases on independence, on the liberation of talents against stiff social structures, and on the power of creation and imagination. What needs to be understood is how these chimeric gestures come to justify the government’s drastic, ongoing attack on the French welfare state, as well as the violence of the state’s reaction to social unrest in France.
For Macron, this is a civilizational war between the jealous, backward forces of yesterday and the “progressive”, enlightened forces of tomorrow. The result, as the president hopes, will be the profound transformation of France, a supposedly unreformable country, into the vanguard of capitalism. This attempt to bring about a revolution of thought and behaviour and to implant the entrepreneurial spirit at all levels marks a new inflection of neoliberalism à la française and a rapprochement with the philosophy of life advocated by its American cousins in the Chicago School. Beyond the immediate context of the general strike, these are the stakes of the current crisis of the social order in France.
Carla Ibled is a doctoral student in the Department of Politics & International Relations, Goldsmiths, and a member of the PERC graduate network.
Foucault, Michel, La Naissance du Biopolitique – Cours au Collège de France. 1978-1979, Hautes Etudes, Paris, Seuil, 2004.
———, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France, 1978-1979, trans. M. Senellart, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
Hayek, Friedrich A. (von), The Road to Serfdom, London, Routledge, 2011.
 M. Foucault, La Naissance du Biopolitique – Cours au Collège de France. 1978-1979, Paris, Seuil, 2004, p. 224. Foucault here contrasts American neoliberalism with its European counterparts.
 M. Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France, 1978-1979, trans. M. Senellart, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, p. 19.
 F. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, London, Routledge, 2011, pp. 126–28.
 Macron’s policies are here compatible with the policies put in place by President Valéry Giscard-d’Estaing, at the end of the 1970s. This is what Foucault described as the French tradition of neoliberalism, which, like Ordoliberalism, is an “economic choice”, and not, like American neoliberalism, a philosophy of life. See La Naissance du Biopolitique – Cours au Collège de France. 1978-1979, Paris, Seuil, 2004, p. 210 and p. 224.