Macron Confronts A Mockery
In France, as in America, insolence is a synonym for youth. From Paris to Philadelphia, there as well as here, today’s youngster lacks something in maturity for his age. I know—to say as much is to say nothing new; it’s to repeat the gripe of just about every outgoing generation from times immemorial till our own day. It’s to raise the endless complaint of every ossifying optimist who—hardened by age and by achievements falling short of their dreams—has seen the spark of his own youthful divinity fade away.
For those of us only slowly, lately, and (if I can be so frank) hesitatingly coming to terms with our own newfound adulthood—shedding, as it were, the ill-fitting skins and skinny jeans of our youth and stepping onto the terra incognita that is, at least so we’re told, the “next chapter” of this life—this much is exceedingly clear. But what that fragile and sheltered youth of today lacks in maturity, he more than makes up for in audacity. The two are proportions in the inverse; where the former wants, the latter overflows. And with an impish insouciance and a general absence of deference or care, today’s youngster isn’t shy to make known the imbalances of the scale.
Such a callow contrarian was on display last week when French President Emmanuel Macron made his way about the crowd at the Fort Mont-Valerien in Suresnes, a WWII memorial located a stone’s throw west of Paris. At an event commemorating his predecessor Charles de Gaulle’s daring attempt to organize a French resistance army under the noses of the Nazis (who were at the time occupying France), Macron fraternized with the people lining the streets. They were gathered not only to meet their equally doughty, albeit slightly shorter current president (de Gaulle stood at an imposing six-feet-five inches; a stature rare for a man of his day and even rarer for a Frenchmen of ours) but also to celebrate one of France’s rare sources of pride.
After Hitler had achieved one of the most audacious maneuvers in the history of war, France was split into two. The Nazis had just slashed through the Maginot Line—a sprawling armed redoubt that traversed the entire eastern French border—of which much was shared with the newly avaricious and daring German stage. Beginning in southern Belgium and stretching all the way to the gates of that bastion of neutrality Switzerland, the Maginot Line was deemed impenetrable. At least it was supposed to be, according to the countless and—as time would prove—credulous opinions of France’s military commanders, amongst whom de Gaulle counted himself. Confident in his Maginot Line and its ability to rebuff any German advance from the east, de Gaulle thus turned his attention north.
It was there, at the Belgian border, through which not so long ago a restless Kaiser Wilhelm II descended into France that de Gaulle turned his sights. At that border in the late summer of 1914, the wily and whiskered German commander decided to embark on a most daring and consequential first strike. Wilhelm, against all expectations, used none other than Belgium as a conduit through which he might advance his troops into France. In so doing, he knew he would be inviting engagement by the British (of whom allegiance to Belgium was expected by way of an 1839 alliance) but he saw it as the best way to confront his empire’s inveterate enemy—that effete and pestering France. Confronting the Parisians yet again (the two countries had engaged numerous times since Napoleon’s capture of Jena), Wilhelm’s move was a famous, in some ways retributive, and ultimately sanguinary success. Soon were to begin the battles at Verdun, Champagne, and the Somme—each of which was more deadly than the last. And with them came an endless lustrum of disease, stalemates, and death.
De Gaulle knew and appreciated this history well, but that didn’t mean it was wholly applicable in his own day. Underestimating this new and differently and oddly mustachioed German head of state (Hitler, forgoing the fashions of the past, chose instead to constrain his facial hair to a humble smudge atop the upper lip), he anticipated the Führer to do exactly the same as Wilhelm II. Applying history as his guide, de Gaulle hurriedly sent his limited troops to the northern French border. The idea was that these soldiers could plug up the sieve that Wilhelm II had exposed so fruitfully—a break in the chain that still remained France’s weakest of all.
Of course, as we know, de Gaulle guessed wrong. Hitler feigned the Belgian route and opted instead for a blitzkrieg through the dense and inhospitable Ardennes. Of all of Hitler’s military strikes, of which most were abjectly ill-conceived, this was by far the most tactically well-designed. The German Panzers didn’t skip a beat as they hastened toward the French coast and thence the Channel where Calais, Dunkirk, and perhaps even Dover lay in wait. De Gaulle recognized the maneuver only too late. In a flash, Germany reached its destination in the west, and France was divvied up into two. The north came to be occupied by the Third Reich, as it remained until the end of the war. The south came to be the home of the Vichy government—a state within a state on whose subservience Berlin depended.
But this dependence, well-earned though it might’ve been, was complacent. Little did the Nazis notice the insurrection bubbling beneath the ground. In a desperate and astonishingly intrepid attempt to reclaim his home (and perhaps redeem his military miscalculation) de Gaulle sought to organize a rebel army that would combat its Aryan oppressors from within. These became the French resistance fighters, a doughty group of rebels about whom American students of the twentieth-century know surprisingly little. It’s a shame, really, as we pride ourselves on casting our lot for the under-dog clawing his way toward liberty.
The Fort Mont-Valerien in Suresnes is home to the Mémorial de la France combattante, a memorial, as any Anglican reader with even a drop of the Gallic in his bones might’ve guessed, commemorating this rebellious gang of French patriots and combatants. They were the thousands of men, of whom seventeen are symbolized and memorialized at the site, who sacrificed their lives to re-capture their country’s now lost way of life. Beyond the resistance fighters, it also commemorates those soldiers who fought and died outside of the continent—those who faced down the Desert Fox Rommel in the Maghreb, an area of sovereign states we know today as Senegal, Tunisia, Libya, and Morocco.
Such a memorial is deserving of every respect, yet as President Macron made his way along the corridor, a young lad caught the statesman’s ear. Singing the Internationale as Macron engaged with the crowd, a bushy-haired boy made himself stand out. Hearing that cacophony of communism, that odious socialist anthem, Macron the centrist stopped in his tracks. The boy then proceeded to egg on Macron by calling him “Manu”, a convivial contraction of the president’s first name, Emmanuel.
For his part, Macron played the intransigent patriot to this insolent youth—and he played it well. Tolerating none of the boy’s Socialist nonsense on such hallowed ground, Macron proceeded to reprimand the youth at length for his poor taste. Of course, France is in many ways the birthplace of modern socialism as today we know it, with its roots stretching back to such intellectual luminaries like Rousseau, Saint-Simon, Fourier, Proudhon, and even Marx himself (though born of Trier, Marx’s germinal years as a socialist were spent in the streets of Paris as a journalist and agent provocateur) but I think that the boy had rather frivolity than history in mind when he sang his song. On top of that, it was after all National Socialism against which France and her allies fought, making all the more odious his singing of the song which exalts socialism—the second half of that political movement’s aim.
Dignity preserved and sanctity renewed, Macron made the boy aware of just how important the memorial is to France. It was the well-timed tongue lashing, the much-needed wrist slapping that the boy deserved. It’s the least for which those countless fallen troops might’ve asked.