Emmanuel Macron’s decision to open up Louis XIV’s palace in Versailles for Russia’s Vladimir Putin at the end of May made perfect sense for the newly elected French leader who once defined his future presidential style as “Jupiterian”.
As a matter of fact, the Hall of Mirrors features a painting by Charles Le Brun depicting Louis the Great holding thunder, the symbol of the king of the Roman gods, French historian Joël Cornette tells me. There are further similarities. It looks very much, Mr Cornette observes, as though the president — who has hailed Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterrand as model “republican monarchs” — has carefully studied the Sun King.
“President Macron seems keen to look impenetrable, distant, sovereign — the trademark of Louis XIV,” he says. Like the absolute monarch, who was the first king to take communication seriously (with Jean-Baptiste Colbert as France’s first communication, or propaganda, adviser), Mr Macron appears intent on carefully crafting his image.
I have witnessed the rapid transformation of a rookie politician into a national leader with some of the strongest executive powers in any western democracy and, after the first round of voting in the legislative elections, a likely crushing parliamentary majority. As economy minister when I first met him, Mr Macron was casual in his dealings with the press — often ready for an improvised interview, a straight-talker happy to make the headlines with a catchy sentence. As a candidate he became less accessible as he sought to look more presidential, but his mischievous self would emerge occasionally — as when he winked at me from his car after visiting an eyeware manufacturer near Paris. When it made sense to show empathy, he seemed to relish it. In Amiens, he debated with angry Whirlpool workers for nearly an hour. In a poor Parisian banlieue, he cuddled children and played football.
Since becoming president, Mr Macron has retreated to Mount Olympus. Access for the press has been restricted, ministers have been instructed not to leak to the press, and the use of Twitter to spread official videos and messages has been amplified. Determined looks under a layer of make-up have replaced mobile facial expressions; pressed lips have chased the toothy smiles away. On the night of his election , Mr Macron walked alone impossibly slowly in semi-darkness for what felt like an eternity. On inauguration day, he rode on the Champs Elysée aboard a military vehicle. The Duke of Saint-Simon, who provided some of the most complete accounts of Louis XIV’s reign, could have been describing the French president when he remarked the monarch was “master of his face, posture and exterior appearance”.
The 39-year-old French leader is seeking to revive the presidency after Socialist president François Hollande — who campaigned on being just a “normal” guy and loved off-the-record chats with journalists — and Nicolas Sarkozy, whose blunt manners and hyperactive style ended up irking a large number of French voters.
“Despite beheading their king, the French haven’t really parted with the symbols of monarchy, they have remained attached to the idea of a powerful figure embodying authority,” Prof Cornette says. “Sarkozy and Hollande didn’t get it. They de-sacralised the institution.”
Even though his “Jupiterian” style needs perfecting (he was caught on camera making a distasteful joke about Comoran migrants recently), and even though it highlights contempt for the press, Mr Macron does get it. The French do not want a “normal” president, Mr Macron told weekly magazine Challenges in October. “On the contrary, such a concept destabilises them, it makes them feel insecure.” Leaders ought to refuse to be dictated by the news and they should have an ability “to enlighten, to know, to spell out a meaning and a direction anchored in French history”, he added.
These comments echoed Louis XIV’s instructions in 1700 to his grandson, King of Spain Philip V, Prof Cornette points out. “Don’t let anyone govern you, be the master, never have any favourite, nor a prime minister,” the Roi-Soleil wrote. “Take advice but always decide.”