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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

Macron and Trump: improbable social media soul-mates

Both use Twitter to advance their agenda, often with mixed results, writes Colin Randall

France's president Emmanuel Macron says journalists do not interest him. Dario Pignatelli / Reuters
France's president Emmanuel Macron says journalists do not interest him. Dario Pignatelli / Reuters

When Donald Trump uses the disproportionately influential medium of Twitter to sidestep the media for important pronouncements, much of the world sneers, sensing the US president is diminishing statesmanship.

But another western leader takes a more respectful view. France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, sees merit in Mr Trump’s wish to address the citizens of his country directly.

Mr Macron also tweets a lot and has little time for the mainstream media. “Journalists do not interest me,” he has said. “It is the French people who interest me.”

He accuses media adversaries of showing more interest in glaring shortcomings in the Elysée’s dealings with them than in serious issues facing France.

If he and Mr Trump seem improbable soulmates, they clearly share a cynical view of the press. Journalists, in turn, search ever more eagerly for inconsistencies, rash statements or perceived insults directed at the public both profess to cherish.

Spotting Mr Trump’s gaffes is an international sport, whether he is informing an audience in Israel he “just got back from the Middle East”, using the word “evil” (twice) about Germany, to describe not wartime actions but peacetime car sales, or minimising the ugliness of white US supremacists and neo-Nazis.

Mr Macron, meanwhile, struggles to get his message across. Attacked as “a president for billionaires” after pledging to scrap wealth tax in its present form while also reducing workers’ rights, he retorts that too many in France harbour a “sad passion” for envy.

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The problem is not that he is pro-business – why shouldn’t he be, as leader of a modern, trading nation? – but that he raises laziness as a motivation for opponents, his reference to fainéants recalling a succession of ineffectual 7th and 8th century rulers known as “les rois fainéants” (“do-nothing” kings).

Even before becoming a born-again centrist, when serving François Hollande’s socialist government, he called women at a failed French slaughterhouse illiterates. There was mitigation – he was deploring the written section of driving tests, meaning such women could not obtain licenses to travel to work elsewhere – but the term was unsurprisingly seen as offensive.

And now, French-speaking Twitter users are having fun at his expense after he used an obscure adjective, croquignolesque, again to describe those resisting his reforms.

The word, deriving from a character in a 1908 comic book, is best defined as ridiculous or laughable. Not everyone considers this an elegant way of portraying fellow-countrymen who disagree with him.

Ultimately, perhaps, we must accept that each head of state has his or her own style of communication.

Mr Macron profited from his time as Mr Hollande’s protégé, gaining useful government experience and somehow, despite his opponents’ best efforts, avoiding guilt by association with an unpopular president.

Few will reproach him because, like his counterpart in the White House, he sees journalists as self-important nuisances. Yet after his comfortable presidential election victory, albeit in the face of woeful rivals, he is also attracting disapproval in the opinion polls.

Mr Macron insists he will press on with his project. He is not the first French president to take office with bold ambitions and contentious policies, only to encounter loud hostility from those who regard the rejection of authority as a republican right.

Come the end of his mandate in 2022, the voters of middle France will care little how well he got on with the media. Instead, they will look at unemployment levels and the state of the economy and assess whether France had finally found a president capable of overcoming fierce opposition, forcing through necessary change while at the same time living up to his claim to be a “president of all people”.