[Publisher's Note] | The Comedy, by John R. MacArthur | Harper's Magazine

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"France has lowered herself to the status of a stamp or seal in order to 'reassure' the American Establishment that its loutish leader isn't entirely mad."

A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on May 7, 2018. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

To a French-American in despair at the lack of political, moral, or rational stewardship in the United States today, France can sometimes offer an appealing model. Emmanuel Macron is far from being my ideal president—embodying, as he does, neoliberal ideas that I detest—but I must admit that he possesses the ability to express himself logically and even displays a flair for comedy, at least in comparison with the buffoonish Trump. The choice of Edwy Plenel, the leftist director of the web journal Mediapart, and Jean-Jacques Bourdin, the “populist” TV host, to conduct the big televised interview with Macron on April 15 is debatable, but one can’t help appreciating the president’s sharp reply to a question concerning the occupation by anti-capitalist activists of an abandoned airport site in Notre-Dame-des-Landes. When Plenel asked the president of the French Republic about the strong-arm tactics the police employed against the squatters, Macron answered sarcastically, “I myself am going to have an ‘alternative agricultural project.’ I’m going to settle into your living room, and then I’m going to say, ‘This is an alternative agricultural project.’” Not bad for a banker.

All the same, Macron’s recent visit to Washington again underlined the constitutional and intellectual crises in my two homelands, as well as my new disappointment in France. France’s importance on the international scene rests on an assumption of independence and savoir faire backed up by legal principles, and her postcolonial position still appears in the best light when it serves as a counterweight to the reckless and often illegal foreign policy of the American superpower. But there was Macron, carried away by his own vanity, doing his best to destroy the legacy and tarnish the prestige of Charles de Gaulle, Jacques Chirac, and Dominique de Villepin, and volunteering for the task of supporting his American counterpart’s sudden and gratuitous impulses. After the purely symbolic strike against the Assad regime, the French president must have blushed to read the legitimation proffered by the New York Times: “It was reassuring that [Trump’s] military response to a suspected chemical attack that killed dozens of people in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma on April 7 was coordinated with Britain and France.”

And so France has lowered herself to the status of a stamp or seal in order to “reassure” the American Establishment that its loutish leader isn’t entirely mad. Bravo! I have no doubt that the talks in Washington and Macron’s speech before Congress reinforced the impression that the American president is in sound mental health.

Nevertheless, the moral and legal decline that’s dragging down Paris in tandem with Washington must be noted. In the United States, a long line of successive presidents, beginning with John F. Kennedy, has weakened the legislative branch’s power to declare war, even though that power is constitutionally reserved to Congress. Ever since the Vietnam War, the commander in chief has become both legislator and general, to the detriment of the popular sovereignty guaranteed by the Constitution. Of all our undeclared wars, Vietnam was the worst catastrophe, but the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi—a military action backed by President Obama and taken without the least consent on the part of Congress—did some significant damage. Macron, like Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, also considers himself above parliamentary consultation, despite the fact, pointed out by an expert in legal and military affairs, Jean-Philippe Immarigeon, that “every constitutional lawyer knows the French president has no war powers except in the case of nuclear war, where rapidity of reaction is paramount; otherwise, he’s nothing but a lieutenant general in the armies of the Republic.” Article 35 of France’s 1958 constitution, like Article 1, section 8, of our Constitution; drafted in Philadelphia in 1787, today contains only empty words drained of all force. Writing in the Revue Défense Nationale, Immarigeon repeats the comment Beaumarchais puts in the mouth of Figaro: “Are we soldiers who kill and get killed for interests beyond their ken? Me, I want to know why I’m angry.”

As citizens badly informed in equal measure, the French and the Americans may have much more in common than the allegedly democratic values extolled in Macron’s speech, which he delivered in English before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill. When Trump—with evident condescension—brushed the dandruff off his little French friend’s suit, I told myself that France’s global image could not possibly sink any lower. The next day, however, Macron outdid himself with his reference (which was supposed to be witty) to the celebrated meeting between Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin and the friendly embraces they exchanged—similar, Macron snickered, to the hugs of the two presidential pals. He apparently forgot the French philosopher’s analysis of what gets lost when comedies are translated, a sort of epigram that the woman who is now Macron’s wife might have taught him in high school: “Good comedy is the speaking picture of a nation’s ridiculous foibles; and if you don’t thoroughly know the nation, you can’t judge the picture.”

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