“Entrepreneurship is the new France,” as President Emmanuel Macron declared last year, in English, while inaugurating an enormous new startup campus in Paris that was built to match the incubators of Silicon Valley. And over the weekend, France’s foremost proponent of entrepreneurship finally put his money where his mouth is, starting up a new e-commerce venture of his own: a clothing line hosted on the website of the Elysée Palace. Offering not only keychains and passport protectors but also graphic tees featuring memes of Macron, the collection debuted to immediate and withering criticism.
Of course, you could argue that all the Elysée shop is doing is selling presidential-themed T-shirts—something heads of state in the US and the UK do with abandon. But maybe it feels different because this is (to my knowledge) the first time the image and brand of a specific president, rather than generic national symbols, is being merchandised by a French governmental entity. This feels tackier than all the other ways presidents cash in on their office, like memoirs and high-priced speaking engagements. It’s unusual, too, perhaps because commercialism registers as more distasteful in France than in Anglo-Saxon countries.
The collection is stylistically inoffensive, all in shades of navy blue, light gray, and white–with bleu-blanc-rouge accents–like something you could buy from a link in the bio of an instagram influencer. Among the items on offer is a nameplate bracelet of the word “liberté” for 250 euros, or his-and-hers T-shirts that read “president” and “first lady,” retailing for 55 euros each. Another T-shirt features a stylized version of a photo of Macron exulting during a World Cup game, an image that was memed far and wide. Or perhaps you’d prefer tees emblazoned with “croquignolesque” or “poudre de perlimpinpin,” antiquated idiomatic expressions (meaning “absurd” and “quackery,” respectively) that Macron famously revived.
At the time, those quaint expressions seemed to briefly transcend Macron’s politics to bring many of the French back to those moments in middle school French class when your teacher used a wacky expression you’d never heard, or only from your grandmother, uniting the class in bemusement. In retrospect, these professorial piques might have been calculated in an attempt to evoke the patriarch of the Fifth Republic, Charles de Gaulle, who had an affinity for obscure expressions, most famously when he described the May 1968 protests as chaotic by using the word chienlit, literally “shit-the-bed.”
After all, Macron’s history when it comes to quotes and t-shirts is a different sort of thing: as Minister of the Economy, he once told a T-shirt-clad protester to “go get a job and buy a suit.” That quote didn’t make the cut to be included on the Elysée’s official merch, of course, nor did his joke about the drowning of Comorian refugees, his description of Africa’s problems as “civilizational,” or his reflection that “in a train station one crosses paths with successful people and with those who are nothing.” But cashing in on the eccentricities of Macron’s speech while erasing the cruelty is political communication 101; it, well, launders his persona, like celebrating wealth without acknowledging the blood, sweat, and dirt that made it possible.
Offensive utterances aside, the phrase most closely associated with the President of the Republic is “startup nation,” but it’s not available on a T-shirt either. It’s something of an advertising tag line for Macron’s vision for France. “I want France to be a start-up nation,” he tweeted (in English) shortly after his election; “A nation that thinks and moves like a start-up.”
What did Macron mean? He has explained that “A startup nation is a nation where anyone can create a startup,” a tautology that exemplifies his famous pensée complexe. Presumably, Macron wanted to conjure up a vision for his administration of innovation, entrepreneurship, efficiency, and technological solutions to social problems—the idealized image of the startup world. And maybe the e-commerce store is an attempt to lead by example, to show that even the presidential palace has a side hustle and is bootstrapping, that even the state is a startup.
However, time has shown that the Macron administration does not exemplify that pristine and hopeful version of Silicon Valley. Instead, as when Macron’s diplomacy fails him and he says what he thinks, we see in the light of day the callous grift of the tech world as it really is. Macron’s “startup nation that thinks and moves like a startup” is an example of running a government like a business, but not just any business: it’s Tesla and Theranos, slick marketing serving as a mask for untrammeled profiteering. It’s scamming, hucksterism, corruption and deceit. It’s dysfunctional and scandal-plagued institutions defended by shills with no regard for rationality or truth, like apparatchiks who won’t hesitate to quote Marxist theory to justify cutting welfare benefits.
It’s innovation for the sake of it, a move-fast-and-break-things “frontier” mentality that a certain kind of French business-school type fervently admires about America and laments the lack of in the pathologically lazy, complacent social-democratic motherland. It’s hitting people over the head with branding until they forget they don’t need the product you’re selling—whether it’s an app or labor reform or an anti-poverty plan or a Kafkaesque online platform for public university admissions. It’s hierarchies of power controlled by brutes, xenophobes, and accused rapists, and using superficial signifiers of feminism or environmentalism to dress it all up. It’s a T-shirt that passes for a statement of progressive values until you realize how much it cost.
In short, he’s done it after all: Macron has brought the French government up to speed with the American dream.