Macron’s Political Insensitivity Compared to the Inclusive Tour de France

French President Emmanuel Macron has all the glamor of a successful executive. Young, dynamic and well-educated, he has the flippant verbal ease typical of French leaders. What he doesn’t have is political common sense. During a particularly intense night of riots in France, he stepped out with his wife to an Elton John concert. Soon after, he flew to the South Pacific where he discussed issues that were in no way connected to the malaise behind the riots.

As the elected leader of France’s Fifth Republic, Emmanuel Macron is supposed to be sensitive to his citizens’ needs. Yet on the very night of one of the worst riots in recent French history, Macron attended an Elton John concert at Paris’s Accor Arena. To stop the weeklong violence, the government was forced to deploy 40,000 troops throughout the country; 4,000 people were arrested; damages were estimated at $1 billion. The days and nights of rage followed the fatal police shooting of Nahel Merzouk, a French citizen of North African descent, killed during a police traffic stop on 27 June 2023, near Paris,

“While France was on fire, Macron was not at the side of his minister of the interior or the police but preferred to applaud Elton John,” a French parliamentarian critiqued. While Paris burned, Macron was videoed grooving to the music and photographed smiling backstage with his wife Brigitte, Elton John, and his husband David Furnish.

And just weeks after France was slowly recovering from the Nahel Merzouk riots, Macron went to France’s Overseas Territories in the Pacific in late July, a trip which had no relevance to the urgent domestic problems, another example of Macron’s haughtiness during France’s summer of discontent. In an interview from New Caledonia, Macron said the country needed “order, order, order.” The French President said France needed order 10,000 miles from Paris.

Where will that order come from? According to Macron; “Our country needs a return of authority at every level, and firstly within the family,” he declared, prioritizing the role parents and schools had to play while blithely ignoring deep-seated French disconnect with his government and his personality of privileged detachment. He arrogantly ignored the mistrust of his government and the public sector which was obvious from protesters’ attacks on schools, gyms, libraries, police stations, and town halls. Even community centers were sacked.

In response to Macron’s criticism of parents and his insistence on “order, order, order,” Socialist party leader Olivier Faure ridiculed the president using the French national motto; “Let’s keep it to liberty, equality, fraternity, thank you.”

Instead of trying to sell what the government called a “French alternative” in the South Pacific marked by rising China-US tensions, Macron might have stayed home to try to re-establish confidence in his personal and government’s authority. If “order, order, order” is his first priority for France, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea were not the best places to start.

Where to start? Perhaps a sports story is helpful. About the same time Macron was visiting Oceania, the Tour de France (TDF) was taking place. For those not familiar with the most popular cycling event in the world, the 110th edition passed through France from July 1-23. The 2023 race covered 2,115 miles in 21 stages, all except two entirely in France. It is estimated that 2/3 of the French watched at least one minute of the TDF on television this year.

In addition to television viewers, thousands and thousands of fans cheer the racers in person. Devoted followers line the course waving flags, applauding the cyclists, encouraging their favorite riders. Some even chase after the cyclists, reminiscent of Spaniards running with the bulls in Pamplona.

I attended the recent race when it passed through a small town outside Geneva. Locals stood bunched together, briefly catching glimpses of the riders as they whizzed by. Other loyal Tour followers settled down with their families to watch while eating picnic lunches. Roads were closed to traffic, shops were shut. The TDF was the main attraction. France, and an estimated 3.5 world viewers were riveted to the Tour.

“It is not enough for people to come to the race.” Samuel Abt wrote in his brilliant collection of articles on biking, Off to the Races: 25 Years of Cycling Journalism. “The race must also go to the people.”

And that’s exactly what the race does for the French. Each year the TDF changes routes and most of its stages. French villages, small towns, and cities compete to be included. While certain parts have become classics, such as climbing Alpe-d’Huez or Mt. Ventoux or finishing on the Champs-Elysées, the fact that the Tour goes all over France contributes to its popularity. The TDF is an inclusive French institution, a confirmation of national identity right from the announcement of the year’s route in October to the champagne celebration of the winner in Paris in late July.

This is how Abt describes the connection between the fans and the riders:

“If the day is hot and a climb long and tiring, people will hold out a bottle of water to a cyclist or pour it over his head. Pushes, even unsolicited ones, may be illegal and yet officials will often look away when a fan helps a faltering climber by shoving him uphill. In the time before a race starts, fans will circulate among the pack, seeking autographs from their favorites, posing for photographs alongside this rider or that, wishing good luck to all. Their grandparents did it, their parents did it and now they do it, bringing their own children.”

If the race goes to the people, why don’t politicians? Macron’s attendance at the Elton John concert and his visit to the Indo-Pacific region at a time of extreme tension is typical of him and too many elected officials disconnected from their citizens. The implicit social contract between governments and citizens needs constant confirmation like the inclusive Tour de France. Macron’s smug indifference has led not only to riots; it has led to growing Right-wing populism and the increasing popularity of Marine Le Pen and her xenophobic party.

The success of the Tour de France is an excellent sporting example of how politicians should go to the people. Macron’s tone deafness is the exact opposite. After all, aren’t we past the royal “Let them eat cake”?

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.