Picture this: July 14, Paris. On the Champs-Élysées, the promenade that runs like an aorta through the heart of France’s capital.
An assembly of dignitaries, army commanders and security agents has gathered on stage to watch a grand military parade commemorating an event of profound importance to the history and psyche of the French people: the storming of the Bastille prison, which spurred the country’s 1789 revolution.
As it happens, this July 14 also marks the 100th anniversary of the entry of American troops into the first world war. And so, heading up the party, sit two radically different male figureheads: Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump.
Though superficially connected by being political outsiders who made unconventional moves to win national elections, the two presidents — one French, one American — are opposites in character.
To the American’s fearful nationalism, his counterpart advances a progressive and proud sense of country, envisioning a France that makes “our planet great again”.
Where one produces a litany of online abuse, the other launched a rollcall of MPs that brings unprecedented diversity to the French parliament. Where Trump is relentlessly outlandish, Macron is unwavering and incisive.
On Bastille Day, the two men were flanked by their wives. While both are in cross-generational partnerships, commentaries on Macron’s marriagehave exposed the deep misogyny that still courses through some parts of society, a misogyny that Trump has himself manifested. As a man, Trump is driven by a rampant ego: the self as brand.
Macron, on the other hand, projects a sense of self underpinned by intelligence, that is, a capacity for learning and reason. And it is this intelligence, and the particular boldness that it inspires, that produced this double-take moment: the French military band in full ceremonial attire, standing at attention before the Bastille Day stage and delivering a bravura rendition of the pop anthem Get Lucky by the French electronic duo Daft Punk.
It takes a while for the medley to build. As the tune becomes discernible — with tuba, trumpet, cymbal, snare and bass drum – it is clear that a coup of artful politics is taking place.
The band intones the chords of this global nightclub anthem in an arrangement that splices the usual military moves with strange and wonderful quick-steps on the Elysées. Carefully choreographed camerawork captures their stiff-chic movements, which both reinforce the music and draw out more meaning beneath the surface.
On the stage, as the men witnessed the ceremonial manoeuvres, their demeanour could not have been more different.
Macron, poised and irreverent, embodies the sense of independence that underlies France’s strong intellectual history. Is there in his attitude, perhaps, a fine thread of the very same spirit of revolt that gave rise to républicanisme, the political philosophy that Bastille Day marks?
Trump, by contrast, appears increasingly unnerved as the delight of the people around him grows. He senses something is afoot but cannot grasp the situation. His out-of-place air is just what might be expected of a capitalist hero who traded real-estate notoriety for celebrity status, and then cashed this in for political power.
Describing these men this way may seem to mythologise them. Yet the evolution of myth and its interaction with history is precisely what this event underlined.
Bastille Day medley
The centrality of myth-making in discourses of social life – of which history is one – is highlighted by the French thinker Jacques Rancière’sobservation that, “the foundation of the foundation is a story, an aesthetic affair”.
So, too, is politics, with its concepts of democracy and public space, and its practice in the Greek tradition of the agora. Following on from French structuralism, the study of language and culture has examined myth not as falseness in the face of reality, but rather as a very particular way in which symbols combine with ideas to promote specific values in a given era.
Roland Barthes was a leading figure in this field and in his 1957 essay collection Mythologies, he combines storytelling and critique to explore the myths of mass culture.
“Bastille Day Medley” would make a worthy entry to a 21st-century edition of the work, along with updated versions of his original essays on “The World of Wrestling” and “Photography and Electoral Appeal”.
French theorist Jean Baudrillard, too, offers insight into the world of celebrity presidency, fake news hype, social-media reality, and historical amnesia that haunt these times.
In his 1981 treatise Simulacra and Simulation, he argues that in the pre-modern world a clear relationship existed between objects, symbols and their use-value in rituals and social practice. In the industrial era of mass reproduction – as Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle outlined – there ensued a breakdown in the value of real and the represented, as commodification heightened the value of appearances over substance.
Today, thanks to processes of multiplication, imitation and circulation, symbols need not be anchored to anything to have currency: simulacrum is the new real. The Trump camp often trades in precisely such simulacra, and its dismissal of reflective thought and critique as “elite” plays into this.
And so the Daft Punk medley is striking because, in its combination of the apparent opposites of military and pop culture, it marks an historic looking back that is also a looking forward. Around the world, viewers witnessed a re-anchoring of the chaotic world of messages — the world of Trump — in a present that has symbolic and political substance.
The significance of this was not lost on many of the dignitaries on stage, as the cameras revealed.
Nor, in this situation, could onlookers fail to appreciate Macron’s sense of timing and keen grasp of the “aesthetics of politics”. In positioning Trump in Paris, on the Bastille stage, Macron artfully revealed with full decorum the hollow figurehead of Trump, an oligarch who radiates the myth of the self-made man.
At an earlier press conference with the two presidents, it was amusing to observe Macron’s raised eyebrows as Trump tried to conjure a sense of historical substance for himself in declaring that “our countries are bound by revolution”.
The rhetoric felt as it was, empty.
This vacuousness was brought to bear on the Bastille stage. During the parade, Trump saluted the troops. In the face of complex national histories that he is unlikely to grasp, and given his habit of aesthetic excess, the gesture looked like a pantomime move: Trump-pomp™.
As the Daft Punk medley unfolded, Trump’s attitude shifted from superiority to confusion and then sulkiness. He resembled nothing so much as Ubu Roi, the infantile king in French surrealist Alfred Jarry’s 1896 play.
Macron did not just get lucky here. This orchestration of an historical moment and a public event was thoroughly considered.
Get Lucky was not an ironic gesture. It did not deflect. It was not superficial. Instead, the medley made several often-conflicting statements at once, offering both entertainment and critique, gravitas and humour. In embodying a progressive vision for France while casting Trump as a bombastic, outmanoeuvred onlooker, Macron’s staging of politics was a coup de grâce, as subtle as it was potent.