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Democratic legitimacy and authority in times of Corona: Angela Merkel’s address to the nation (18 March 2020)

Légitimité démocratique et autorité en temps de Corona : L’allocution à la nation d’Angela Merkel (18 mars 2020)
Jürgen Siess et Ruth Amossy
Cet article est une traduction de :
Légitimité démocratique et autorité en temps de Corona : L’allocution à la nation d’Angela Merkel (18 mars 2020) [fr]


Cet article se propose d’étudier les procédures discursives et argumentatives qui construisent la légitimité et l’autorité de la Chancelière Angela Merkel dans sa première allocution télévisée sur la Covid-19. Instaurant une distinction nécessaire en ces deux notions corrélées et souvent confondues, l’analyse dégage une rhétorique globale du coronavirus : mise en scène de la légitimité institutionnelle renforcée par l’unité des gouvernants (un « nous » englobant), construction d’autorité par le recours à l’argument d’autorité épistémique (les experts), justification des mesures anti-Covid par des arguments pragmatiques ou par l’exemple, construction d’un ethos qui assure une crédibilité. En même temps, l’analyse dévoile des procédés propres aux situations d’urgence : mise en valeur d’un consensus politique absolu, et illusoire, aux dépens d’une délibération démocratique ouverte ; réduction de la parole scientifique à une parole d’experts susceptible de fournir des certitudes aux décisionnaires, transformés en gestionnaires ; déplacement des valeurs démocratiques du plan de l’action vers le plan du discours ; demande au public d’accepter de son plein gré des mesures d’ores et déjà édictées. Enfin, l’article souligne les spécificités de la parole de Merkel en cette occasion : le métadiscours qui aborde de front le rapport à la démocratie, mais aussi à l’argumentation, l’insistance sur les valeurs humaines considérées comme supérieures aux valeurs démocratiques enfreintes, la posture de proximité censée contribuer à la légitimation morale et à renforcer l’autorité de la Chancelière. La dimension éthique du discours est d’autant plus saillante qu’elle s’appuie fortement sur des arguments pragmatiques. Une autre caractéristique est la présentation de soi singulière d’Angela Merkel : aveu de sa propre fragilité, image de femme sensible qui unit la raison et le sentiment, appui sur une éthique fortement imprégnée d’affectivité qui lui donne un accent très humain et qui en appelle à « l’action solidaire » plus qu’à l’obéissance.

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  • 1 To see some pioneering works on the question: Rojo and van Dijk (1997), van Leeuwen (2007), Fairclo (...)

1This article tackles a question that needs further exploration in Discourse Analysis (DA) and argumentation theory: the discursive and argumentative procedures by which political leaders build their legitimacy and authority in times of crisis1.

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2We discuss this issue in German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s address to the nation on March 18, 2020, where she is faced–like her peers–with the obligation to justify the adoption of emergency measures that restrict fundamental freedoms. The question of whether the decisions adopted by the Federal Government and the regions2 (Länder) comply not only with the law, but also with the values of democracy, cannot fail to arise. At the same time, one can wonder whether the authority of the leader is sufficient to elicit voluntary obedience to such drastic instructions.

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3The Chancellor had held press conferences in the previous days to outline the nature of the measures meant at slowing down the spread of the pandemic in Germany. The reason we focus here on the March 18th speech is that in her press conferences, Merkel had stuck to practical considerations of an informational nature. The address to the nation appears as a deliberate choice, made even more sensitive because of its unusual character. The Frankfurter Allgemeine of March 18th points out that “during the years of her governance, there has never before been an extraordinary TV address by the Federal Chancellor to her people.”3 Merkel makes her appearance in prime time on television, which usually only happens in her New Year’s address.4

4This paper examines the way in which the Chancellor is dealing with the delicate issue of legitimacy at a time when she is announcing extraordinary restrictions. It also analyzes how she endeavors to acquire an authority that emanates not only from the power conferred on her by the Constitution and by her institutional status, but from a willingness to listen and obey without coercion. The following micro-analysis uses the instruments of Discourse analysis (DA) and argumentation theory to see how legitimation and authority construction (two correlated processes to be carefully defined and distinguished) are discursively constructed. At the same time, we hope to shed some light on the specificity of Merkel’s rhetoric in comparison with the address of other democratic leaders facing the same challenge.

1. The procedures of discursive legitimation

1.1 From legality to legitimacy: the German context

5As a first step, it seems necessary to observe the interplay between legality and legitimacy in a situation of pandemic. In the German federal system, the leader and her government are allowed to make their decisions without prior debate in parliament. Thus, the federal government, the prime ministers of the Länder and a group of experts have decided on measures to manage the sanitary crisis since the end of February–on the 28th the crisis unit headed by the Minister of Health, Spahn, and the Minister of the Interior, Seehofer, is formed. There were no debates led by the deputies of the Bundestag (Federal Assembly) or the Bundesrat (House of Representatives of the Länder). This is made possible by the relationship between the head of government and the parliament established in the German Constitution (1949). The Grundgesetz states that “The Federal Chancellor shall determine and be responsible for the general guidelines of policy. Within these limits each Federal Minister shall conduct the affairs of his department independently and on his own responsibility(Article 65). In an exceptional situation that requires finding solutions to an acute problem, the head of Government organizes a summit bringing together the Federal Government and the Länder. When decisions are taken, the government instructs the competent administrations; as a rule, it is the administration of the Land or municipality that decides on the concrete measures to be put into practice on the ground.

6It should be noted that there are emergency laws in this very Constitution–the laws of the state of emergency, Notstandsgesetze, introduced in the Grundgesetz in June 1968. Articles 35 and 91 deal with the Innerer Notstand—internal state of emergency (as opposed to threats from outside the country). The Infection Protection Act (Administrative Law, section “Right to Prevent Risks” [2000]), which gives the government and the administration the authorization to intervene in the event of an epidemic, may also be invoked. According to paragraph 54 of this article, regulations may be introduced by the Federal Government, one of its ministers or the governments of the regions. But in 2020, apart from the Land of Bavaria which refers to the 2000 law, no one invokes, in the face of the epidemic, these specific laws.

7In any case, when adopting the anti-corona measures, the rulers are in the strictest legality. However, although the Chancellor can rely on a legislation known to all, she does not mention it in her speech. Legality does not entail legitimacy–and it is Merkel’s mission to have citizens recognize the legitimacy of her measures, namely, to prove that they are not only lawful but also respectful of democratic principles.

1.2. The manifestation of institutional legitimacy

8The Chancellor appears alone at the time of her speech to which the image of the Bundestag in the background and the presence of the national flag confer a great solemnity—and not, like some other leaders, surrounded by a whole team (this is the case for example in Belgium or Italy).

9However, Merkel’s voice, while remaining personal, orchestrates the other rulers’ voices in a polyphony which eliminates any sign of dissension. An important way of building legitimacy is indeed to erase any divergence that could crack the unity of government bodies. Merkel uses from the outset a “we” that brings together the head of government and her “colleagues in the federal government” in the coalition that includes the Christian Democrats (CDU-CSU) and the Social Democrats (SPD). She speaks of “the Federal Government’s ongoing consultations with experts,” which unanimously led them to the same conclusion, and the economic measures that the government as a whole is committed to taking. She includes in this unanimity the regions: she evokes “the closures that the Federal Government and the Länder have decided by mutual agreement.”

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  • 6 Paradoxically, theAfD (Alternative für Deutschland – extreme party-right) and Die Linke (far-left p (...)

10Such unanimity may seem surprising in the light of the complexity that characterizes the German federal state. And indeed, one can see in the immediate reactions to the speech that differences of view have emerged. Thus, journalists report that the telephone consultation between the Chancellor, several ministers of the Federal Government and the Prime Ministers of the Länder on March 19th , gave rise to a harsh confrontation: the Prime Minister of North-Rhine, Armin Laschet, presented a document he had agreed upon with eleven other leaders of the Länder to refuse the lockdown; this displeased the Bavarian Prime Minister (CSU), Marcus Söder, who instead demanded stricter measures, including a general lockdown. Not to mention that apart from the rulers in office, dissent is expressed by the opposition parties. It is therefore clear that we are far from the consensus Merkel’s speech displays.5 There is indeed a procedure of “smoothing”—in French, lissage, namely, “erasing forms of diversity and heterogeneity” that Oger and Ollivier-Yaniv (2006, § 6) see as a feature of institutional discourse. In this case, erasing and homogenization constitute a discursive procedure of legitimation based on the importance of agreement as a lever for action in democratic regimes.6

1.3. Proximity strategy and legitimation process

11The exorde may appear at first glance as a mere evocation of the crisis Germany is experiencing; it participates, however, in an argumentative strategy. Merkel does not begin with the concrete measures taken to slow down the epidemic: she first evokes their immediate consequences on the life of the Germans, namely the collective experience in which she includes herself by using the pronoun “we”: “The coronavirus is changing daily life in our country dramatically at the present. Our idea of normality, of public life, social togethernessall of this is being put to the test as never before.” She describes this experience as a break with ordinary habits and lifestyles. But the focus is not only on daily life experience. What is radically modified is a common understanding of social life, and the individual’s relations with others; it is, in her own terms, “our idea of normality” (unsere Vorstellung von Normalität); and the “heaviest,” she adds, is the absence of social encounters “that we otherwise take for granted” (uns allen fehlen die Begegnungen, die sonst selbstverständlich sind). In short, it is the world view of the entire population and the rules of conduct people have internalized that are destabilized.

12This exorde sets the tone for the discourse to come: the highlighting of the human element common to all, the insistence on the difficulties in daily experience and on the shock suffered by everyone. This is not a simple exercise in empathy for the suffering of others: the speaker includes herself among those who feel deeply destabilized and are worried about their future. Merkel puts herself on the same level as all other citizens. Indeed, she uses the “you” to designate those who no longer go to work, or to school, or shopping; however, she returns to the “we” in what follows, with evaluative and affective subjective marks that show her personal commitment, speaking for example of the social encounters otherwise taken for granted. Like the others, the speaker is subject to the constraint of estrangement and separation, like the others she feels the experience of “dramatic” change–a change arousing a strong emotion.

13This presentation of self is linguistically enabled by the fact that the coronavirus appears as the active agent, the grammatical subject of the verb “to change,” while the life of the Germans, and Merkel among them, is a grammatical object complement (das Coronavirus verändert zurzeit das Leben in unserem Land dramatisch;The coronavirus is changing daily life in our country dramatically”). The upheavals the speaker evokes are directly attributed to the virus; the Chancellor is, for her part, among those affected by these phenomena–as if she was not talking about the measures taken by her own government. The address thus recurs here to naturalization: the acting power is presented as natural, external, unescapable, and not as political.

14The speaker employs a strategy of proximity which, in contemporary democracies, is often used by rulers whose status as elected representatives is no longer sufficient to legitimate them (Rosanvallon 2008: 297). Indeed, by showing herself subject like all humans to the power of a higher authority, Merkel creates a horizontal relationship that brings her closer to her fellow citizens, to the detriment of the vertical relationship that is established between the one who gives orders and those who are supposed to obey them. One of the elements of this reversal, according to F. Leimdorfer and A-L. Tessoneau,

is the reference to a higher authority, superior to groups in a situation of dominant/dominated, to a “law” (in the sense of the rule to which we refer) which imposes itself, or seems to impose itself equally on all, and which transforms social subjects (i.e. individuals in their social place) into “individuals” outside the social situation except that of being free and equal in law and before the law. (1986: 66)

  • 7 Quotes according to the official translation (...)

15It is the pandemic and the need to fight it that play the role of the higher authority in the face of which all are equal. Angela Merkel’s governmental functions are assumed against this backdrop, so that a community of trials and shared interests distorts the image of the politician in a position of power. This verbal behavior constitutes a procedure of legitimation particular to the Chancellor, insofar as she takes the risk of invalidating her institutional authority as a leader speaking from her superior position. In the addresses to the nation on the pandemic, there are hardly any heads of state who publicly confess their dismay, as Merkel does when speaking of “each of us”: “Of course, each of us has many questions and concerns in a situation like this, about the days ahead” (Natürlich ist jeder von uns in solch einer Situation voller Fragen und voller Sorgen, wie es weitergeht).7

1.4. Legitimation by a meta-discourse on democracy

16The exorde of the speech, however, presents a significant tension between a situation where the leader says she is subject to force majeure and bewildered by the circumstances, and a situation where her functions put her in the position of decision-maker. The management of this tension plays an important role in the establishment of her legitimation enterprise and the construction of her personal authority.

17In the continuation of the exorde, Merkel, returning to the vertical relationship, positions herself as a leader called to assume her functions: she speaks as the head of government who must make decisions. Her speech is intended to build their legitimacy by explicitly commenting on the respect of democratic principles to which the ruler is required to comply.

18Curiously, Merkel does this not by justifying the democratic nature of the measures adopted, but by presenting her discursive approach as a mark and proof of her respect for democracy. In other words, the discourse deals minimally with the relationship of government decisions to democratic rights—and when it does so, it seems to indirectly admit that there is a breach: “These are restrictions, the likes of which the Federal Republic has never seen before”, it says of the “the closures that the Federation and the Länder have agreed to” and that “weigh on our lives and on our understanding of democracy” (Ich weiss,, wie hart die Schliessungen, auf die sich Bund und Länder geeinigt haben, in unser Leben und auch unser demokratisches Selbstverständnis eingreifen). When she refers to freedom of movement, Merkel admits that this freedom is being violated, noting that such restrictions can only be justified in cases of absolute necessity and for a limited time.

19The Chancellor therefore does not care to plead the democratic nature of the anti-Covid measures: it is the democratic nature of her approach that is emphasized. She grounds her legitimacy in the peculiar nature of her discourse. The relationship with citizens that her speech establishes is, according to her, faithful to what an “open democracy” requires: “I’m addressing you in this unconventional way today because I want to tell you what guides me as Federal Chancellor and all my colleagues in the Federal Government in this situation. And she adds:

This is part of what open democracy is about: that we make political decisions transparent and explain them. That we justify and communicate our actions as best we can, so that people are able to understand them (Das gehört zu einer offenen Demokratie: dass wir die politischen Entscheidungen auch transparent machen und erläutern. Dass wir unser Handeln möglichst gut begründen und kommunizieren, damit es nachvollziehbar wird).

20The speaker thus offers a discursive definition of democracy, namely, a definition that emerges from the co-text: an open democracy is a democracy where no element is hidden from citizens, where all data are accessible—it responds to an ideal of “transparency”. It is also a democracy where reasoning based on data leading to a conclusion through a process of inference is properly justified—thus excluding arbitrariness. Merkel goes back to this later: “We are a democracy. We thrive not because we are forced to do something, but because we share knowledge and encourage active participation.” Again, what is discussed here is not the democratic nature of the announced restrictions, but the democratic function of speech, which communicates information in full transparency, transmitting the knowledge necessary to explain and justify the decisions adopted.

21This is the way Merkel intends to demonstrate the allegiance of her discourse to the great principles of democracy, thus building the legitimacy of the speaker and her speech. She recurs to meta-discourse, in the sense that the discourse reflects on itself and deals with its own nature. This allows the speaker to bypass or at least to push to the background the democratic legitimacy of the measures enacted, which the speech indirectly suggests may violate democratic rights generally and unconditionally valued.

1.5. Legitimation using human values8

  • 8 See the very interesting article of van Leeuwen, “Legitimation in Discourse and Communication”, whi (...)

22How does Merkel nevertheless manage to legitimize her measures by resorting to values grounded in democracy? She uses a value-based argumentation that places her speech on an ethical level. The painful nature of the restrictions to be respected is weighed against the supreme value of human life. Here too, the discourse is part of a rhetoric of the coronavirus practiced by most leaders. Merkel, however, puts particular emphasis on the ethical dimension and the human aspect.

23To justify quite exceptional restrictions, the idea that priority should be given to the preservation of human lives is highlighted. This enables the establishment of a hierarchy of values (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969: 107-111): saving lives prevails over any other objective, even that of respecting certain democratic principles; consequently, they can be temporarily suspended in order to rescue human beings from disease and death. The priority given to the protection of life is linked to the democratic and ethical idea of equality in all matters relating to the protection of individual existence: “we are a community in which each life and each person counts” (wir sind eine Gemeinschaft, in der jedes Leben und jeder Mensch zählt).

24Such is the legitimation procedure that Merkel adopts: government decisions and actions, although they infringe on freedoms, are legitimate insofar as they conform to human values considered universal.

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25At the same time, we see that these values are not cut off from democratic principles. Indeed, the highest attainable standard of health” is “a fundamental right of every human being” according to the WHO Constitution, which adds that while strategies and programmes should be designed explicitly to improve the enjoyment of all people to the right to health”, the policies must help the health sector to assume its responsibility, which is to care about the health of everyone.9 In the event of a pandemic, this right to health becomes a right to the protection of life that must be guaranteed equally to everyone. Merkel speaks of what the Federal Government and the state levels are doing to protect everyone in our community”.10 It is not, however, democratic values that the Chancellor is emphasizing here: she deliberately places herself on the level of ethics by claiming a system of human values presented as a higher body to which all are supposed to pledge allegiance.

The construction of authority

2.1. Authority through logos: rational justification and free adherence

26How does the speaker build her authority in her speech? Even if she intends to base her authority on the recognition of the legitimacy presiding over her actions, she does so as a leader who seeks voluntary assent and obedience devoid of coercion. She makes it clear from the outset: speaking of the explanation of government decisions, she says–damit es nachvollziehbar wird. It is the idea that the alleged reasons must be well understood and become plausible in the eyes of the public so that its members can freely accept them. It follows that the audience’s adherence to the theses presented to its consent (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969: 5) is essential. From the outset, the audience is solicited as an active agent and the citizen appears to be free to exercise his powers of judgment.

27It should be noted that in this specific case, where decisions have already been taken and disclosed, the speaker seems to neutralize the contradiction that could arise between an institutional power that imposes restrictive measures likely to curb the epidemic, and an authority based on the consent of citizens who retain their free will (thus between the interest that the rulers assert and the interest that the governed can assert).

28Like discursive legitimation, the construction of authority is carried out initially through justification procedures. Merkel’s speech has two interrelated objectives, which she clearly outlines: to make the audience understand and accept the government’s health policy, and to persuade citizens of the paramount importance of their commitment. How does the discourse proceed to argue in favor of the theses it puts forward on these two planes and thus ensure freely consented obedience?

2.1.1. The argument of authority

29This argument plays a significant part in Merkel’s address. We have seen that it does not refer to the authority of the law and is not satisfied with its institutional authority. Moreover, no model from other countries is invoked to be authoritative (as seen, for example, in the speech of the Israeli Prime Minister or the Brazilian President, both of whom refer to the United States). All recourse to the authority of the law, institution, tradition or celebrity yield here to the argument by the epistemic authority in the form of the appeal to expert opinion.

30It is well-known that the so-called ad verecundiam argument has traditionally been considered fallacious insofar as it based adherence on the authority lent to a third party and not on personal judgment. This condemnation has, however, been widely reviewed by argumentative scholars such as Douglas Walton (1997), from whom we borrow the categories mentioned above, and who insists on the reasonableness of the appeal to expert opinion provided that it meets certain critical conditions (in particular that of qualification). Marc Angenot, for his part, aptly recalls that in a field where we do not have the necessary skills to judge ourselves, “the price of a permanent suspicion” towards specialists in the field–medical in this case—“would be too heavy” (2012: 20): trust is required. Hence the use of experts, i.e. “people whom society and its institutions authorize and invite to speak with authority on certain matters on which the general public, judges or ‘decision-makers’ are [considered] incompetent” (ibid.: 98, our translation).

31In this vein, and depending on the distribution of areas of competence, Merkel states that it is scientific knowledge that guides her government’s decisions and guarantees the validity of measures to curb the spread of the virus: everything I tell you about this comes from the Federal Government’s ongoing consultations with the experts from the Robert Koch Institute and other scientists and virologists [...].” The use of a highly qualified body, in this case the Koch Institute, is a reference institution adopted at the federal level for the fight against diseases and epidemics. The need for hygiene and social distancing rules is also based on scientific knowledge: Virologists are giving us clear advice,” says the Chancellor, that leaves no doubt on these subjects. The practical recommendations are presented as stemming from the advice of the experts consulted by the government.

32It will have been noted that the Chancellor presents scientists as speaking with one voice, without dissension, which should strengthen the validity of the opinions reported by erasing any possibility of controversy. A shift is taking place in this case: scientists who by definition “doubt, verify, modify their theories, amend their hypotheses and debate” (Angenot 2013: 99; our translation), are presented only in the form of experts capable of providing certainty to decision-makers. On the scientific level as on the political level, Angela Merkel (like Emmanuel Macron and other leaders) erases any trace of doubt or possible divergence.

33One may wonder whether the delegation of powers to medical experts is convincing in a democratic system. Some doubt it. In the 20th century, says François Debras, the use of experts and advisers weakened “central places of deliberation such as parliament, in favor of less visible commissions and committees considered more ‘technocratic’”—so that the politician risks becoming “an administrator or a manager” (2015: 395, 396). However, in this moment of great uncertainty in the face of an unknown scourge, the use of virologists as a higher authority and up to the mutation of leaders into managers are tacitly presented as inevitable. Let us add that this mode of reference to science as the ultimate argument of authority is part of a global rhetoric of the coronavirus that can be found in the speeches of other heads of government (France, Israel, Italy, Argentina, etc.).

2.1.2. Rational justification of government measures: enthymemes and pragmatic arguments

34The rational justification of the solutions advocated by the Chancellor is more massive, and it takes several forms. In the first place, one must find a way out of a situation in which there is still neither a way to treat the coronavirus, nor is there a vaccine. The assumption of “there is still none” is that this lack is momentary and can be filled in the future, which is confirmed by the phrase As long as this is the case.” A general premise can be induced: when something (important) in progress is not completed, it must be given time to come to an end (the implicit being that the vaccine and treatments cannot fail to be found). However, giving science time means adopting a behavior that can “slow the virus down as it makes its way through Germany. And we must, and this is vital, focus our attention on one thing above all else, namely powering down public life as far as possible.We are dealing here with a pragmatic argument, or argument from consequences, which consists in estimating something according to its consequences, desirable or undesirable (Perelman 1959: 18). Part of the assessment of the consequences (the slowing down of the contamination) is then transferred to what causes them (the measures adopted by the government): no events, no trade fairs, no concerts any more, and, for the time being, also no school, no university, no kindergarten, no more playing at the playground”; and in addition, more intensive border controls and restrictions on entry for a number of our most important neighbouring countries. This will allow to protect the population, avoiding “everything that could harm not only individuals, but also the community”. Thus, repressive measures are justified by the positive consequences that result from their application in times of health crisis. Practical common sense is put above respect for core principles.

35The same pragmatic argument, this time from negative consequences, is used about the risk of congestion in hospitals: although the German health system is said to be excellent, too many infected patients would jeopardize its proper functioning.  Merkel seems to be referring here to the situation in Italy—the German press reports that Italian hospitals are overwhelmed and are no longer able to provide the necessary care. Once again, circumscribing public life as much as possible is presented as the only approach likely to reduce the number of infections and leave hospital care the opportunity to be given in good conditions.

  • 11 See D. Schmelzer (2020) who speaks of a turning point, a “new Us” that appears–in Merkel and Spahn– (...)

36The second goal of the speaker, to make accept the need for an “action in a spirit of solidarity” (gemeinsames solidarisches Handeln) and to engage all citizens to participate in it, occupies a very important place in the discourse and is addressed several times. From the outset, Merkel said: “I also want to tell you why all of you are needed here, and what each and every individual can do to help.” In this regard, other pragmatic arguments are put forward: “we will pass this test if all citizens genuinely see this as THEIR task.” A general mobilization is necessary for the proper realization of the common task: “All measures taken by the state would come to nothing if we were to fail to use the most effective means for preventing the virus from spreading too rapidly [...] Everyone counts, and we need a collective effort.11

2.1.3. Argumentation by analogy: the historical example and the model

  • 12 Oxford Learner’s Dictionary

37However, Merkel is also using the historical example to convince the audience that her support is needed to overcome the crisis. She characterizes it as a “challenge” (“a new or difficult task that tests somebody’s ability and skill”12), which must be met like the two previous ones that played a crucial role in the history of Germany: Since German reunification, no, since the Second World War, there has not been a challenge for our country in which action in a spirit of solidarity on our part was so important. The presupposition expressed in the relative suggests that a great national challenge calls for a set of individual actions inscribed in a collective approach. To the extent that it is presupposed, this necessity is given as doxic knowledge that does not need to be demonstrated; it has the advantage of saying without saying, of imposing itself without having to justify itself. In this context, at the end of her speech, the Chancellor said of the present situation: “This is a historic task, and it can only be mastered if we face it together.

38Through the analogy, the two historical examples also serve as an argument to prove that solidary action necessarily leads to success. In the two cases mentioned, the country had to join all its forces to get out of an extremely difficult situation, and it succeeded in doing so: in 1945 in rebuilding Germany in ruins, and in 1989 in reuniting politically and economically the two Germanys separated since 1949. The selected historical examples accentuate the gravity of the situation, and at the same time, they call for a renewal of the behavior that has ensured previous successes. It should be noted that the significant differences between the two historical crisis situations and the present sanitary crisis are erased for the purpose in hand: the emphasis is on the value of a positive precedent that must persuade and encourage action.

39Thus, by means of analogy, historical examples also intend to prove that the success of the fight against the pandemic is not only possible, but almost assured. On two occasions, the Chancellor expresses her firm conviction that the road taken will lead to the goal: “I have absolutely no doubt that we will overcome this crisis. In these statements formulated in the first person, she expresses an inner certainty (she believes, she is sure) that is not supported by any proofs. The historical example fulfills the function of providing supporting evidence and showing that the speaker’s personal convictions are well founded.

40The address also recurs to an argument by the example that uses one or more special cases as a model to encourage imitation (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969: 471). The speech evokes the unwavering commitment of the nursing staff but also of the employees of the supermarkets who set an example—indirectly presenting them as a model to follow. In her thanks, Merkel quotes doctors, nurses and all the professionals who work in hospitals, noting that the efforts of these collectivities that are “on the front line” are a first achievement in the fight against the coronavirus:You are doing tremendous work. On another level, supermarket employees, through their hard work, make it possible in times of pandemic to maintain the proper functioning of everyday life and of the economy. The praise for these joint efforts highlights a commitment that must inspire all citizens. It is in the context of a discourse that aims to advocate solidarity that these testimonies of gratitude (which are also found in the mouths of other leaders) acquire their argumentative dimension.

2.1.4. The construction of authority and value-based argumentation: adhering to solidary action

41To build her authority, the speaker also uses a value-based argumentation (Koren 2019, Guerrini 2020) similar to the value-based procedure of legitimation already analyzed. The latter concerns the rulers and their allegiance to shared values, the first concerns the audience called upon to follow ethical principles.

42The statement that success will also largely depend on how disciplined each and every one of us is in following the rules” and in putting them into practice involves both a pragmatic argument and a call for an ethics of responsibility. According to Merkel, the possibility of saving lives depends “on the considerate behaviour of others”; elsewhere, again: “Everyone counts”; and more strongly: Not panicking, but also not thinking for a single moment that he or she doesn’t matter after all”. It is therefore in the name of an ethic of responsibility (Verantwortungsethik) according to which one must assume the (foreseeable) consequences of one's action (Weber 1946: 192) that the speaker addresses her audience. Weber’s notion is closely linked to the argument from consequences – but it presents it in its ethical dimension, opposing it to the “ethics of conviction” (Gesinnungsethik) which does not care about consequences but only “to prevent the flame of pure conviction from being extinguished” (ibid.: 193), for example the flame of protest against the deprivation of liberty. These values are at the basis of the argumentative schema according to which citizens must actively participate in a collective effort that without them cannot succeed, and must take their fate into their own hands: But how many victims will it claim? How many loved ones will we lose? The answer, to a great extent, lies in our hands.

43Another value on which the argument is based is respect for the other as well as reciprocity; they are the basis of responsible behavior: we must find “ways to help each other”. Merkel encourages conduct that provides protection. To responsibility is thus added the value of solidarity, marked in the expression gemeinsames solidarisches Handeln commented above, and declined in examples such as “taking care of all those who need a dose of cheer and encouragement”. In this regard, the evocation of mutual support occupies an important place. This is applied to the decrease in meetings due to the limitation of visits and travel: “As families, and as a society, we will find other ways to help each other. Conversely, the lack of solidarity—which consists, for example, in storing food unnecessarily—is blamed. It is therefore in the name of the value of solidarity that the Chancellor wants citizens to adhere to the conclusion that mutual assistance in all its forms is essential.

2.2. Authority and ethos construction

  • 13 For the relationship between authority and trust, cf. Angenot 2013.

44If authority is built through rational and ethical justifications that aim to obtain the free support of the audience, it must also impose itself through the self-presentation of the speaker. One can see in Merkel’s argument the way her speech projects an ethos that plays a primordial role in the discursive construction of her authority. Indeed, for the speaker to be listened to and followed, she must appear credible and trustworthy.13 According to Aristotle, self-presentation unfolds on three correlated planes: phronesis or wisdom, prudence, aretè or virtue, eunoia or benevolence. The speaker is credible when her words seem reasonable (seem grounded in reason, as benefits a wise person), when they manifest her knowledge and competence in the performance of her duties. But she must also be perceived as sincere and honest, and as well disposed towards her audience.

45If we examine the self-image that Merkel projects in her address to the nation, we can find these qualities in various aspects. The plausibility of the reasoning she deploys, the practical sense she demonstrates in her pragmatic arguments, the balanced way in which she deals with a thorny question, meet the requirements of phronesis. We can add to this the relationship to knowledge: the leader does not herself have the necessary medical knowledge, but she surrounds herself with the best specialists and bases her reasoning on the data and evaluations provided by scientists. What is more, she demonstrates her ability to adapt her thinking to the evolution of the situation, her willingness to correct what requires to be corrected and to make new decisions based on the experience gained:

The government will constantly reassess what measures can be adjusted, and also what further measures may still be necessary This is a developing situation, and we will ensure that we continue to learn from it so that we can adjust our thinking and deploy new instruments at any time. If we do so, then we will explain our reasons once again.

46As for moral qualities, we have seen that Merkel does not hesitate to sincerely admit how personally destabilized she is by this unprecedented crisis—an attitude that is particularly remarkable for a leader in these circumstances. This sincerity is supposed to testify to the honesty of the speaker who also expresses herself in her search for transparency and her desire to share everything with the German citizens. In this way, she asks the public to trust her. In addition, she manifests her eunoia, her benevolence towards the citizens she asks to make an exceptional effort, showing them both that she understands their difficulties and that she wishes to protect them as best as possible. These expressions of benevolence are also formulated in terms of the financial support that her government intends to provide: We can and we will do whatever it takes in order to help our companies and their employees get through this most difficult time.

47Moreover, Merkel refers to her prior ethos (in the sense of R. Amossy 2010), that of an East German who has experienced the disastrous effects of the deprivation of freedoms, to show that she is perfectly credible when she asks for restrictions that encroach on rights that are dear to her: for someone like me, for whom the freedom of travel and the freedom of movement were a hard-fought right, she says, citing her personal history to mark the magnitude of the sacrifice made, and the fact that she would never have resorted to it if there was no urgency and absolute necessity.

2.3. Ethos and pathos

  • 14 As the Islamist attack in Berlin on 19.12.2016 leaves twelve dead, the families of the victims and (...)

48Closely related to the construction of ethos, there are also traces of pathos in the discourse. It is a call to affects that aims to arouse emotions and make them a lever of adhesion and action, at the same time as it projects an image of leader who places great value on feelings. These references are therefore intended both to persuade the audience to follow the instructions (this is the effect of pathos), and to present the leader (often criticized for her lack of empathy or even her coldness) as a sensitive woman: These are not just abstract numbers in statistics, but this is about a father or grandfather, a mother or grandmother, a partner—this is about people (Menschen).” The emphasis is again placed on the profoundly human aspect of the speaker and her considerations. If the measures advocated must be important to the members of the audience, it is according to Merkel because they are aimed at protecting those who are most dear to them. Affection serves here as the supreme incentive for prudence and reinforces the principle of mutual aid and solidarity. It is affection that calls to modify the gestures by which feelings are usually expressed:14

I know that this is asking a great deal of us. Especially when times are hard, we want to be close to one another. We show affection by staying close, and by reaching out to each other. But at this time, we must do the exact opposite. Every single one of us must understand that, right now, the only way to show we care is by keeping our distance.

49The love for one’s own family must give us the inner strength to go against our own instincts and needs, and to give up on gestures by which we showed our feelings until then. Merkel dissociates feelings from the behaviors that express them culturally to ensure their existence by other means, which she tries to enumerate. She intends to associate pathos and logos: Even though this is something we have never experienced before, we must show that we can act warm-heartedly and rationally—and thereby save lives (Wir müssen, auch wenn wir so etwas noch nie erlebt haben, zeigen, dass wir herzlich und vernünftig handeln).


  • 15 Cf. R. Amossy’s contribution in this volume.

50Throughout this analysis, we have seen that legitimation and authority construction are closely entangled in the very texture of the speech. Both rely on a discursive process of justification. Nevertheless, the two concepts remain distinct. Democratic legitimacy means not only institutional status obtained through democratic procedures, but also and above all recognition of conformity to values endorsed by the collectivity. It is also the moral right to represent the people, a right increasingly conferred nowadays by a posture of proximity. Authority, on the other hand, is what gives the individual the ability to obtain obedience through non-coercive means. It relies on legitimacy, which is a necessary but not sufficient condition. Authority derives essentially from the ability to persuade the audience that the requests made are reasonable, and from the capacity of the speaker to project an image of credible and trustworthy person.15

51In this context, Angela Merkel’s speech is part of what could be called a “rhetoric of coronavirus”. It is of course based on her institutional legitimacy, which is visually staged and verbally reinforced through the unity of the rulers translated by a “we” encompassing them all. It builds her authority on the use of the argument of epistemic authority, referring to a collective of high-level experts. It also constructs it in an argument intended to persuade citizens of the veracity and validity of the instructions. This process of justification is carried out by a set of pragmatic arguments (from consequences), and historical analogies that indicate the way forward to reduce as much as possible the ravages of the virus, while waiting for remedies to be found. Finally, it tries to ensure Merkel’s credibility by building an ethos of sincerity, honesty and benevolence. Apart from a few exceptions (such as the historical example, anchored in a national imaginary), the form and content of these arguments are quite like those brandished by most leaders of democratic countries at the beginning of the pandemic.

52Moreover, we can find in the speech what could be described as a rhetoric of emergency situations. Thus, for example, the enhancement of an absolute and illusory political consensus, at the expense of open democratic deliberation; the reduction of scientific discourse to an expert discourse likely to provide decision-makers with certainties; the government's dependence on experts, which transforms its members into managers rather than decision-makers; the shift of democratic values from the level of action (respect for individual freedoms) to the level of discourse (holding on repressive measures a discourse fit to an open democracy); asking the public to voluntarily accept measures already enacted. The agreement of the audience is presented as indispensable, but in a relationship where its members do not have the floor–the TV address not being followed by a session of questions is symptomatic in this regard. By resorting to argumentation, the Chancellor does not offer the possibility of initiating an active dialogue; the purpose is to make citizens adhere to the merits of decisions that have been taken for them. According to the Chancellor, there is no alternative: “only one thing matters [...]”. The urgency of the situation and the need to avoid disaster are supposed to limit freedom of judgment and choice.

53In this global context, what characterizes Merkel’s speech? First, it is the meta-discourse, namely the reflexive nature of her speech concerning its relation to democracy and the argumentative nature of her address. It tackles the issue of democracy head-on in a time of acute crisis and does not attempt to defend the conformity of the anti-corona measures with democratic rights. Rather, it emphasizes the idea of an open democracy understood as a communication based on transparency and knowledge sharing.

54In this context, the discourse undertakes to provide a justification for the measures adopted–in this case, their conformity with human values (the protection of health, the respect for the life of everyone) considered superior to the democratic values violated, regardless of their absolute importance. The emphasis on the human dimension is in line with a posture of proximity that is supposed to contribute to moral legitimation and to strengthen the Chancellor’s authority. The ethical dimension of the discourse is even more salient because it relies heavily on pragmatic arguments.

55Another characteristic of Angela Merkel’s speech is the peculiarity of her self-presentation. No doubt it conforms to the principles that ensure the credibility of the speaker in terms of rhetoric, but it does so in a very special way. Indeed, as we have seen, she does not hesitate to admit her own fragility in these exceptional circumstances—something that few leaders are ready to do. She also shows herself as a sensitive woman who attaches great importance to feelings—love, disposition to physically show affection, need to protect loved ones are themes that she addresses explicitly. The emphasis on affectivity, which is supposed to bring together reason and feeling, reinforces the arguments that the speaker puts forward. The discourse is thus based on an ethic strongly imbued with affectivity, which gives it a very human tone and which calls for participation rather than obedience.

56A discursive and argumentative analysis cannot measure the effects that this intervention has had on the public—it is a task that goes beyond its limits. Let us only note here that the protest demonstrations against the measures did not take place until a month after the Chancellor’s speech. A first demonstration was organized in April in Berlin, the Hygienedemo organized by the group “Democratic Resistance” (mainly of far-right tendency); most of the demonstrations were banned or dispersed, the number of participants was limited. The great wave breaks from August 2020.

57In addition, surveys can give an idea (although very general) of immediate reception. Thus, a poll of March 27, 2020, communicated by the ZDF (the second German channel) marks that 75% of citizens said that the restrictions perfectly met the needs of the situation; for 20%, the measures did not go far enough; only 4% felt they were excessive. It will be necessary to examine the reactions both in the political sphere and the various media as well as in social networks. Similarly, it would be instructive to see how her speech helped reposition Angela Merkel in the political field.16

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1 To see some pioneering works on the question: Rojo and van Dijk (1997), van Leeuwen (2007), Fairclough and Fairclough (2012).





6 Paradoxically, theAfD (Alternative für Deutschland – extreme party-right) and Die Linke (far-left party) both note the same shortcomings in Merkel's proposals (in particular more extensive and concrete social protection measures).

7 Quotes according to the official translation

8 See the very interesting article of van Leeuwen, “Legitimation in Discourse and Communication”, which speaks of' “moral evaluation” – a category we retain here without adopting the whole of its analytical grid.



11 See D. Schmelzer (2020) who speaks of a turning point, a “new Us” that appears–in Merkel and Spahn–since the beginning of the pandemic, and stands out favorably from “the disintegration of democratic consensus and solidarity”.

12 Oxford Learner’s Dictionary

13 For the relationship between authority and trust, cf. Angenot 2013.

14 As the Islamist attack in Berlin on 19.12.2016 leaves twelve dead, the families of the victims and the press deplore the belated and not very sensitive reaction of the Chancellor.

15 Cf. R. Amossy’s contribution in this volume.

16 Quoted in

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Jürgen Siess et Ruth Amossy, « Democratic legitimacy and authority in times of Corona: Angela Merkel’s address to the nation (18 March 2020) »Argumentation et Analyse du Discours [En ligne], 28 | 2022, mis en ligne le 25 avril 2022, consulté le 25 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Tel-Aviv University, ADARR

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