In the acknowledgement section of philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s last major book, he thanked his editorial assistant for a “pertinent critique” of the draft work.
As he was then finishing up working for Ricoeur, in 2014, that editorial assistant, fresh-faced Emmanuel Macron, professed himself “like an excited child at the end of a show”.
Macron, now French President, has shown more leadership than the entire rest of the Western world since his election. He claims to have found a political path between left and right, has made clear in the most elegant ways his disdain for Trump and has bowed to nobody, least of all Vladimir Putin in sharing truths about international political thuggery. So it is interesting to trace his philosophic influences.
For Ricoeur, phronesis, Aristotle’s term practical wisdom, is the tool we bring to bear on political or social puzzles. There is no single method and it does not flow not from a universal moral code but instead from leading an ethical life.
In 1969 when he learned that a group of student radicals was committed to preventing professors enter the cafeteria at the University of Nanterre, then a refuge for radical leftists from the University of the Sorbonne, to which he had just been appointed a professor, Ricoeur nevertheless walked into the room in the hope of dialogue. However, one of the students placed a dustbin lid on Ricoeur’s head. This cameo grimly illustrates what Ricoeur called the fragility of politics.
The week before the recent French Presidential Macron talked – and listened – to a crowd of angry workers at a tumble-dryer factory in Amiens, northern France, threatened with closure by June 2018.
Greeted by whistles and calls of “Marine for president” when he arrived, by the time he left Macron had, if not completely convinced his audience, at least ended the jeers – and won some respect. “I’m not sure he can truly help us” one striking employee was reported as saying. “But he tried. He was quiet and honest”.
It was a dustbin initiative. It was more ethical than the actions of most politicians in similar circumstances.
For Ricoeur, integrity can be judged by our attachment to the promises we make to ourselves and to others.
Distinguishing himself from Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the extreme left Defiant France, Macron declared: “I will not promise that I will nationalize your factory. The answer to what is happening is not to suppress globalisation or close the borders. Do not be fooled by those who tell you otherwise. They are lying to you. Unhappily, there will always be companies that fail”.
When a worker demanded to know what Macron would do as president, he vowed that his government would invest heavily in retraining programs for endangered industries. Hearing frustrated groans, Macron replied by telling the workers that he did not come to “promise the moon,” but instead that he would fight for them: “We all have responsibilities. If I did not respect your work, your fears, and your anger, I would not be here today”. He then made a final promise: “I will return, without cameras and even if I lose”.
The recognition of the other’s singularity, the recognition that there are no simple solutions and that confrontations must become dialogues — creating a space, even in parking lots, where answers might not be found but questions will find respectful listeners — all reflect Ricoeur’s ethics. So, too, does Macron’s repeated invocation of promises, both those he would make — such as returning to Amiens to meet the workers — and those he would not, like Le Pen’s to keep Whirlpool’s operations in Amiens.
In an essay titled ‘Existence and Hermeneutics’ Ricoeur claims he is striving for a philosophy which can describe and engage with the various ways that people make sense of their worlds. He wants a philosophy which can arbitrate the claims which different world views, each a philosophy in its own right, will present. Ricoeur proposes hermeneutics, the art/science of interpretation, as a model for the philosophy he desires. This he defines as the art or science of interpreting texts where more than one meaning is present.
Macron has famously formed his party, En Marche, and his government in equal measure from the left and the right, and – allegedly – from neither.
He characteristically frames his vision with the famous formula “and at the same time”: For example addressing probably the most fractious issue in French politics he has said he wants to make work more flexible but at the same time protect the most vulnerable.
Ricoeur emphasises an ethic of responsibility, a sort of ‘practical wisdom’ seeking constantly to integrate actions with a sense of the consequences.
This would account for Macron’s strength on the issue of climate change. He berated Trump for his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, in English, calling to make the planet great again; and he called on climate scientists disgruntled with Trump’s policies to help France with its efforts to arrest global warming.
Ricoeur struggles with the correlation between power and evil.
There is evidence Macron does not pull his punches. Who could deny that scrunching Trump’s tiny fist in a symbolic macho handshake was addressing evil used by power, head on, albeit in a banal way.
Ricoeur is Christian, utopian and idealistic. He thinks that politics should intersect with economics and ethics.
One of the manifestations of this is strict honesty. After telling celebrated, fashionable psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan in 1963 that he could not understand a word of his writings on Freud, Ricoeur became the bête noire of Lacan’s zealous followers. It was blunt and brave.
In the presence of the intimidating Vladimir Putin and in another “muscular exchange”, in May, Macron attacked Russian propaganda outlets, which he says do not practise journalism. “I will not give an inch on this”, he asserted. “Russia Today and Sputnik … behaved as organs of influence, of propaganda, of lying propaganda”. Putin defensively said (of allegations Russia hacked the French election), “Do you think that we are ignorant of the results of the elections? We’re not kids, we’re not children”. However, Macron stood firm, fixing a sceptical stare on Putin as he made his denials. Macron also warned Russia against supporting further chemical attacks by the Assad regime in Syria. As Macron put it, this will be considered a “red line” for France: “The use of chemical weapons by anyone will be the object of reprisals and immediate retaliation on the part of France”.
Though a Christian, Ricoeur believed in secular and pluralistic law.
Macron reveres the memory of King Henri IV, who was tactically flexible about his own religious identity and affirmed confessional tolerance.
The Economist magazine says of a speech Macron gave last year in Montpellier(once a bastion of Protestantism), “Although he accepted that Islam was a unique subject of concern in today’s France, he was equally adamant that no religion was in itself a problem. The purpose of France’s regime of laïcité (strict secularism) was not “to conduct a battle against this or that religion in particular, not to exclude, not to point a finger…” As he conceived it, the function of laïcité was not to curb religion but to affirm and underpin religious freedom, albeit strictly within the framework of the law. That last sentiment is more characteristic of American Church-State separation than of French secularism in its most zealously anti-clerical form”.
Although born into a secular family, Macron asked to be baptised at age 12. He is not a regular churchgoer and has been described as a “Zombie Catholic”.
“Macron has likened the internal problems of the European Union and its monetary system to a religious conflict. The Protestant north had a rigid and moralistic attitude towards debt while the Catholic south, with its culture of confession and absolution, took a more happy-go-lucky view, he once said”.
Ricoeur was ironically the most ‘American’ of his generation of French intellectuals. Not only did he teach for several years at the University of Chicago, but his works are also exceptional — at least among French philosophers — for their knowledge and engagement with Anglo-American thinkers ranging from P. F. Strawson and Alasdair MacIntyre through John Rawls to Frank Kermode and Wayne Booth.
Macron uses English as a weapon – speaking in French to Trump but in English about him. His comfort at engaging Trump in a competitive handshake suggests a non-Galllic horizon, for good and bad.