Emmanuel Macron has finally reacted to his yellow peril and no one appears to be convinced. The Daily Devil’s Dictionary explains.
One of the first reactions to concessions that French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced after the protests of the “gilets jaunes” on December 1 came from Benjamin Cauchy, an active member of a movement that has neither leaders, nor spokespersons: “Les Français ne veulent pas des miettes, ils veulent la baguette au complet.” This roughly translates as, “the French people don’t want crumbs, but the entire baguette,” a word we hesitate to translate as “loaf” because of its shape and symbolic importance in French culture.
Here is today’s 3D definition:
The long, thin bread everyone can afford, which also resembles a stick that may be used to symbolically slap the bottoms of clueless French politicians
The word “baguette” has several connotations in French. The bread resembles a drummer’s stick, also called a baguette. It is the cheapest, most affordable bread and the one used to make French sandwiches, which are long, pointed and crusty, unlike the bland squares of soft, tasteless congealed foam used for sandwiches in some English-speaking countries. Far from a luxury item, a good baguette nevertheless illustrates the French “exigence” (requirement) that things you put in your mouth please the senses.
But there is also the “baguette magique,” or magic wand. In politics, the term is used to describe the promises campaigning politicians wave around as if they were endowed with Merlin’s powers — powers that seem to disappear once they are elected.
As Sophie Hunter recently pointed out in Fair Observer, to win his election in 2017, Emmanuel Macron resorted to the most traditional method for achieving anything in France: seduction. He persuaded his confused public to believe he possessed the magic wand that a charismatic president is expected to wield. It was the same formula John Fitzgerald Kennedy had used nearly 60 years earlier to turn the White House into Camelot: youth, good looks, vigor and apparent political daring.
A baguette can also be a ceremonial stick that symbolizes authority, or a divining rod for locating sources. There are a number of other meanings, often associated with authority and punishment. What the fundamentally non-political demonstrations of the gilets jaunes have showed is that Macron’s baguette, whether thought of as magic or a stick to punish people, has slipped out of his hands.
When Nicolas Hulot, Macron’s popular environment minister, broke protocol and announced his resignation in August in a live radio broadcast, the French president’s authority took a major hit. To regain credibility with ecologists, President Macron came up with the brilliant idea of an “ecological transition” based on new taxes on gas and fuel, hitting the struggling population where it hurt the most at the approach of winter. Not long afterwards, his interior minister, Gérard Colomb, no longer believing in Macron’s leadership, resigned in a similarly chaotic scenario.
Everyone remembers Marie-Antoinette’s apocryphal rejoinder when told the people had no baguettes to munch on: “qu’ils mangent de la brioche!” This has always been mistranslated as “let them eat cake” — brioche being a sweetened spongy soft bread, which she thought might be available on the bakers’ shelves after the day’s stock of bread had been sold out. Bakery goods have always played an important symbolic role in France.
Which brings us back to modern history. Gas may be today’s bread, but the protesters in France see the tax breaks that Macron generously offered to the wealthy and super-wealthy as a far greater bone of contention than the fuel tax hikes the government is now asking them to support.
The pattern described by so many contemporary critics — starting with France’s own star of economy theory, Thomas Piketty — is now on everyone’s mind. The system is not just skewed in favor of the 1%; the people are told that the 1% hold all the solutions. To some that doesn’t sound much like égalité and fraternité, though it does define the liberté of a neoliberal order. Like the sans culottes, they sense that this may be their moment in history.
To compete in today’s global economy, if one follows the current rules, a nation must feed the rich at the expense of the middle class, who can live with the hope of seeing the manna miraculously descend from heaven (trickle down) at some later date. If capitalism at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution embraced and then abandoned the simplistic ideal of maintaining the working class at a level of mere subsistence to keep costs at a minimum, late phase capitalism appears to be returning to its origins after flirting with the heretical idea that a well-paid workforce could foster a prosperous consumer society where most everyone wins.
That could for a time work at the level of a nation, but not of the globe. So, the reasoning goes, now that we’re global, let’s go back to basics, even if it means killing the goose that laid the golden consumerist eggs.
Devoid of any political clout, Emmanuel Macron himself is little more than a symbol, but of what? Unlike other populist movements in the UK, the US, Germany, Italy and Eastern Europe, the gilets jaunes seem unconcerned by the hot populist topic of immigration and focused on the question of endemic inequality.
In 2017, Macron, like Moses, miraculously split the waters of the traditional left and right parties, expecting to lead his people into the promised land of a République en Marche (Republic on the Move). Like Moses, he may spend the next 40 years walking in the desert. And, of course, unlike Moses, he is the one who worships the golden calf.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.