President Macron attacks the “do-nothing” French

14 Sep|Tom Hodgkinson

Protestors in Paris, photo by Jeanne Menjoulet

The French are right to protest President Macron’s attacks on “do-nothings”, writes Tom Hodgkinson

Idleness has been in the news this week. French president Emmanuel Macron has accused his own people of being “fainéants, cyniques et extrêmes”.

“Fainéants” means “do-nothings” or ”idlers”. Macron was moved to this admittedly elegant denunciation because French unions have attempted to resist his attempts to neo-liberalise the workplace in France. He wants French workers to stop loafing around eating oysters and enjoying long lunches and get more productive.

The young, modernising president intended this phrase as a tripartite insult. However, viewed from a slightly different angle, doing nothing, being cynical and taking extreme positions can be viewed as positives. They all have a long and distinguished history in philosophy.

The roots of the Cynic philosophy are found in Socrates. He did nothing much beyond chatting to people in the marketplace. He was Cynical (in the original sense of “living like a dog”) and took extreme views. He did not bother to write anything down, or charge money for his teaching, or even to wear shoes. He was killed by the Athenian state but his influence lives on today. His follower Diogenes took an even more extreme position: he threw away all his possessions, lived in a wine jar, spat at rich people and gate-crashed parties. Far from being reviled as a loser, as might be the case today, his fame spread far and wide. He was visited by Alexander the Great and inspired Roman emperors to live frugally and to seek autarkia or “self-sufficiency”. Christ himself was not known for slaving away in a boring job worrying about ROIs. Instead he wandered about in simple clothing and indulged in Cynic-type behaviour, like turning over the tables of the money-changers. In fact some scholars claim that the New Testament’s statement “the love of money is the root of all evil” came from the Cynics. The Roman biographer of the Cynics wrote: “The love of money he [Diogenes] declared to be the mother-city of all evils.”

Why bother striving? As Homer’s Achilles said: “they both died, the lazy man and the busybody.” More recently, French intellectual movements have rehearsed Cynic ideas. In the 1950s, the Situationists scrawled “ne travaillez jamais” on the Paris walls. Today the streets are filled with protestors bearing slogans such as “Macron you are f***ed: the ‘do-nothings’ are in the street”.

So Macron has a long tradition of Gallic shruggery to fight against in his struggle to reform the French and turn them into willing slaves.