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Emmanuel Macron facing Covid-19: A president in search of image repair

Emmanuel Macron face à la Covid-19 : un Président en quête de réparation d’image
Keren Sadoun-Kerber et Stéphane Wahnich
Cet article est une traduction de :
Emmanuel Macron face à la Covid-19 : un Président en quête de réparation d’image [fr]


Comment un dirigeant politique peut-il imposer des demandes inhabituelles dans une démocratie face à la Covid-19, alors qu’il suscitait déjà une grande méfiance bien avant cette crise en raison d’une image écornée mettant à mal sa légitimité et son autorité dans la sphère publique ? Cet article repère les démarches discursives du Président français pour réparer son image dans ses deux premiers discours sur le Coronavirus. La réparation d’image se fait ici indirectement par une voie différente de celles que répertorie la littérature savante sur le sujet. Il s’agit, pour Emmanuel Macron, de renforcer sa légitimité affaiblie ainsi que de construire des postures d’autorité. Ces deux concepts sont clairement distingués dans notre analyse et constituent des axes importants du retravail de l’ethos, dont l’objectif est d’accroitre la confiance des Français dans le Président et les mesures annoncées pour enrayer la pandémie.

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1Image repair and discursive construction of authority and legitimacy

2How can a political leader exercise his authority and be willingly obeyed, when his public image is degraded, and he arouses distrust in a large part of the population? This is the situation in which Emmanuel Macron found himself during his first two addresses on the Coronavirus (on March 12 and 16, 2020). We will examine here the way in which the French President seeks, through various strategies of image repair, to build his authority and reinforce a legitimacy that is severely undermined.

3A few words on the notion of “image repair” are in order at the beginning of the analysis. The expression refers to a discursive process that has been formulated differently in various disciplinary perspectives. According to Aristotle in the Rhetoric, the speaker must eliminate any negative impression of his person in his speech. For the sociologist E. Goffman (1959), it is a “facework” through which a person seeks to rectify bad impressions that the other has on him. In the communication field, William Benoit (1995, 2014) sees it as a persuasive enterprise aimed at modifying the negative perception of a person accused of having committed an offensive act. He mentions five categories of image repair: denial, reduction of responsibility, reduction of negative feelings towards the victim, correction action, and mortification. Although this well-known theory is interesting, it does not consider some essential components of discourse, such as gender or various fundamental rhetorical elements (Johansen & Frandsen 2001, Sadoun-Kerber 2016, Amossy 2018). Therefore we will adopt here a different analytical approach, rooted in discourse analysis and argumentation. It should allow us to study the construction of a meliorative image from a rhetorical perspective centered on ethos, by examining how the legitimacy and authority of the speaker are consolidated in discourse.

4The deteriorated image of President Macron is linked to the shaking of his legitimacy. Indeed, from the start, his election was considered a “victory by default” against Marine Le Pen due to the disqualification of right-wing candidate François Fillon by various affairs. Moreover, his program and his reforms were not accepted by all; and his contemptuous little phrases1 as well as the repeated scandals in his circle, especially the Benalla affair2, provoked a great distrust of the French towards their President. A cleavage thus occurred between the power and the people, which was expressed politically during the Yellow Vests demonstrations originally caused by a proposed increase in diesel prices. This popular revolt managed through social media lasted throughout 2019. As an example, we note that the President’s New Year’s address in 2018 provoked exceptionally violent reactions on Twitter, and a remarkably high amount of ad hominem and ad personam attacks (Sadoun-Kerber 2021).

5Moreover, the measures adopted to counter Covid-19 could be considered excessive and not in line with the value of freedom (enshrined in the national motto) that democracy cherishes. How can the Head of State convince the French to make a change in their habits by giving up the freedoms they are attached to?

6Aware of these issues, President Macron proceeds by responding to the need (1) to demonstrate his credibility, in connection with the components of the Aristotelian ethos, (2) to strengthen a partially questioned legitimacy, and finally (3) to put this legitimacy at the service of a bolstering authority to be listened to and followed. He must restore the credibility of his person and the respect that a President is supposed to inspire, two aspects of authority that Marc Angenot (2013) aptly differentiates.

7The situation of the speech

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8The lack of legitimacy and authority is even more glaring at the beginning of the epidemic because, for E. Macron, the gravity of the disease was underestimated. Thus, like many scientists and commentators in the media who explained to the French that this new disease was no more serious than a “big flu”3 and that the danger was also “very low because of his confinement to China,” as declared by the Minister of Health Agnès Buzin4, the President did not immediately take the measure of what was going to happen around the world. The decision to confine was therefore not an obvious one for Emmanuel Macron. It was taken in a sort of about-face, in three steps, over ten days.

9The first stage consists in the denial of the dangerousness of the disease. Eager to prove that the epidemic is not important, Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron go to the theater on March 6 to “encourage the French to go out despite the coronavirus” (as BFMTV titles the next day). “Life goes on. There is no reason, apart from the vulnerable populations, to change our outing habit,” the President declared in the presence of a journalist from the Quotidien program of the TMC channel according to a Twit from Jean-Marc Dumontet, owner of the theater which had the honor of the presidential visit. The second phase appears in the first presidential speech of March 12 which announces the first measures of a beginning of confinement which does not yet tell its name. Moreover, the President reaffirms that “in the vast majority of cases, Covid-19 is harmless, but the virus can have very serious consequences, in particular for those of our fellows who are elderly or affected by chronic diseases such as diabetes, obesity or cancer.”

10Following this speech intended not to be alarmist but prudential, E. Macron criticizes his opponents by stressing: “Some say: ‘you are not going far enough’ and would like to lock everything down and worry about everything, sometimes disproportionately, and others consider that this risk is not for them.” This political position which intends to be balanced (between the “hardliners” and those who deny the risk) seems reasonable, which could make it easier to impose measures that might be considered exaggerated. Moreover, the indefinite character of the pronoun “some” allows Macron, who is well identified, to dominate the political scene against anonymous opponents. The third stage is the announcement of a general lockdown in the March 16 speech. The word “some” is used to describe those who doubted. The speaker says: “Until then, the epidemic was perhaps for some a distant idea, it has become an immediate, pressing reality.” In fact, by denouncing those who doubt, the President intends to make people forget his own posture even though this sentence describes his attitude of March 6 and 12.

11The preliminary description of these three stages is important because it shows the extent to which, in these circumstances, the reliability of the presidential speech is undermined. Emmanuel Macron will therefore develop a system of argumentation likely to restore a better ethos by strengthening his presidential legitimacy and authority.

1. A president in need of legitimacy

1.1. Institutional legitimacy

12From the outset of the crisis, Emmanuel Macron will rely on his institutional legitimacy. As Head of State, the President, in his speeches announcing the confinement, will make use of a decorum showing that he holds power because he is legitimately elected. He knows that after the sequence of the Yellow Vests, his legitimacy as a political leader is challenged by a year of continuous demonstrations and it is the power of the institutions of the Fifth Republic that must allow him to intervene at a moment when the previous crises might prevent him from acting politically. To achieve this, he will stage the myths of the Presidency of the Republic.

13The first myth is that of the providential man with a solitary exercise of power. Unlike the Belgian Prime Minister who intervenes within a collective, Emmanuel Macron is alone on the screen facing the French. Moreover, his mode of intervention is very solemn: he does not hold a press conference like the President of the Italian Parliament. The length of the speeches is also revealing. By these long interventions, he imposes himself on the nation. The speech on March 12 will last 27 minutes, almost half an hour, and his second speech, that of March 16, will last 21 minutes. His two speeches also use the traditional formulas of institutional speeches with the introductory formula: “French, my dear compatriots” and concluding with the traditional Vive la République! Vive la France! “Long live the Republic! Long live France!” This mode of expression, pertaining to the great presidential tradition, also aims at issuing an explanation of the crisis without intermediary, and without contradiction, avoiding any reproach or any possible dissension. Its logic is not that of the democratic posture that lends itself to debate, but that of the rhetoric of urgency where danger legitimates a limitation of democracy. To impose this posture, Emmanuel Macron will physically stage his institutional legitimacy. He intervenes in the presence of the French and European flags, as during all official interventions. The decoration of the room reminds the pomp of power; the walls are in gilding Ancien Régime style. Far from the modernity sometimes called for by the President, the decor asserts the solidity of power, the continuity of institutions reminiscent of an eternal France. In other words, all the decor serves to send traditional signs so that the French believe in a power that goes beyond the simple political situation of Emmanuel Macron.

1.2. Legitimacy through values: the welfare state at the service of the public good

14The President also resorts to legitimation by values and especially by the public good of which he is responsible, thus showing that he has the right to speak and act in the name of shared values. He evokes the protection of the weakest and shows solidarity by promising substantial state aid to all those affected.

15At the same time, he shows in his first speech that he places the protection of public health above everything else, which he expresses in the statement “Health is priceless.” It is a ready-made expression reflecting a doxa through which a consensus is supposed to be established by welding the French. This formula serves as a major premise for the following enthymeme: “health is priceless, Covid-19 is a serious threat to health, therefore we must protect ourselves against Covid-19 whatever it costs and pay what it takes.” The phrase “whatever it takes” draws attention (it is stated three times in this speech at three different moments). The question that may arise is that of the price to pay. The declaration is even more noticeable as it is not in conformity with the so-called neo-liberal governance of Macron. The following passage has been widely commented in the media:5

What this pandemic is already revealing is that free health care without conditions of income, background or profession, our welfare state, are not costs or burdens but precious goods, essential assets when destiny strikes.

16Note the reformulation of the term “costs” into “precious goods” and “indispensable assets.” These epithets are part of the positive assessment of the argument the speaker makes. It expresses for some an “ode” to solidarity and to the services offered by the welfare state: E. Macron sings the praises of the French system, as opposed to a model of neo-liberal global development. This statement marks a possible shift to the left of the President, previously accused of sabotaging the welfare state, especially concerning the reform of the pension system. It is the sudden but obvious need for solidarity that seems to guide this shift to the left. It is meant to reinforce E. Macron’s legitimacy because his speech highlights a key value of the French Republic, that of Fraternity which is as important as the values ​​of Freedom and Equality.

17To justify this position of defense of the weak, E. Macron resorts to “impersonal authorization” (van Leeuwen 2007; it also corresponds to Weber’s legal-rational authority) which can certainly be interpreted as a pragmatic consideration, but also shows that he cares for the poorest and more broadly for all those who are anxious about their economic future because of the lockdown. The insistence on the values ​​commonly accepted in the French society (solidarity, care for the weak), is supposed to reflect on the speaker’s person: he presents himself as the advocate of the shared values. He thus reinforces an essential component of the ethos according to Aristotle: virtue, which is meant to contribute to his challenged legitimacy and help his image repair.

1.3. Democratic legitimacy

18Macron also gives a great place to the call to vote in the municipal elections in his speech of March 12. By insisting on the importance of the citizens’ vote, he indirectly reinforces the democratic legitimacy of his own election (what Charaudeau calls “legitimacy by mandate” [2005: 57] inspired by the three categories of transmission of authority according to A. Kojève [2020 (2004): 36]). To mobilize voters, the Head of State appeals to the authority of scientists (see below). “In this context,” he says, “I asked the scientists about our municipal elections, the first round of which will be held in a few days. They consider that there is nothing to prevent the French, even the most vulnerable, from going to the polls.” This is where epistemic authority is instrumentalized by political authority for decisions that fall within the political realm. In addition, the Head of State insists on the fact that he talked to the leaders of the other parties to have a broad agreement. This strengthens his legitimacy in a democratic regime that considers all citizens, the governed, and their representatives. The President thus exhibits an attitude consistent with the principles of the Republic. The legitimacy of his presidential role is supposed to be reinforced by the fact that he watches over democracy and maintains the values ​​of the Republic even in the very worrying context of the pandemic.

2. Authority in discourse

2.1. Analyzing the discursive construction of authority

19As authority is a polysemic term, let us specify right away that it is understood here as the “power to act on others” (Trésor de la Langue française, TLF) and more specifically “that by which power is imposed, which produces submission without recourse to physical constraint” (Larousse: our translation); “submission” can be replaced by “obedience.” But to achieve this, the leader must be the one who has the knowledge and knows how to act. It is precisely on this subject that Macron’s already weakened authority is undermined because the evolution of the President’s speech between March 6 and 16 shows that the one who is supposed to know is learning at the same time as those who listen to him.

20To counteract this fragility in the face of Covid-19, E. Macron constructs different images of authority in his addresses. We will first examine the image of the army Chief (chef des armées), which is part of his institutional title, and the images attached to the four forms of authority defined by Alexandre Kojève (2020 [2004]): the authority of the Leader corresponds to the one who has the knowledge and can predict (ibid.: 28) and one of its variants is the officer, and also the military chef, (ibid.: 24) ; the authority of the Master is founded on the notion of risk (ibid.: 24), one of its variants being the authority of soldiers over civilians (ibid.: 23), corresponding to legitimate violence; the authority of the Father who gives protection and advice (ibid.: 29); and the authority of the Judge who defines the good and the evil (ibid.: 26). It is important to mention that Kojève’s four types of authority are usually combined (there are 60 combinations) and rarely presented in their pure form or, as he puts it: “the concrete cases of real Authority are always complex: all four pure types are combined in them” (ibid.: 29-30). For him, the authority of the Head of State is complex, and the Leader type is only one of its elements (ibid.: 25). We will try to find the predominance of the types used by E. Macron. These models, and especially the authority of the Leader, the one who possesses the knowledge, will be dealt with in a second part of the analysis, where we will see with the help of which rhetorical strategies Macron proceeds to a construction of ethos displaying his phronesis. We will also examine the dimensions of aretè and eunoia in the construction of a meliorative ethos. We can observe in the following analysis that the President orchestrates all these political postures and the different facets of his ethos to regain the confidence of the French people and repair his damaged image as a leader.

2.2. Constructing images of authority

21In this sense, it is possible to speak of indirect image repair, i.e., the attempt to neutralize negative impressions of oneself by reinforcing the components of the ethos (and not by reacting directly, with the help of the repair strategies studied in the scholarly literature, to the reproaches launched at one’s person).

2.2.1. The Army Chief: the metaphors of war

22The image of the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, a role E. Macron fulfils by virtue of his titles, is discursively constructed by a set of means: 1) repetition, 2) formula, 3) argument by negative consequences or appeal to fear, 4) metaphor.

231) In the first speech, the image of the Army Chief is indirectly projected by the speech through the statement “I rely on you,” repeated eleven times like a mantra preparing the audience for a challenge that must be met and that sounds like the exhortation of a commander mentally preparing his troops for a war. The repetition aims at imprinting in the mind what is being said and engraving it in the memory; it functions as a means of persuasion. It should be noted that this appeal from the President to the audience sets up a dynamic of trust: if the President “relies” on his audience, it is because he has confidence in them. In return, the addressee must trust the speaker who, in this case, is in charge.

242) A more direct means of discursive construction of the image of the Army Chief is the formula of “general mobilization” which appears later in the first speech. A formula according to Krieg-Planque (2015) constitutes a means of exercising discursive authority and closing a possible debate. In the expression “general mobilization” which is repeated, and which moreover refers to a state of emergency, the use of the formula serves to block a capacity for critical reflection that should not interfere in a state of emergency requiring “the putting on a war footing [...] of all the forces of a country.” (TLF). This formula has a perlocutionary force; it is both a discursive means of constructing an image (that of the commander-in-chief who can decree a general mobilization) and a call for the citizens to act, the action consisting in this case of obeying and putting into practice the instructions given.

  • 6 It is a slogan that evokes the war of 1914, according to Audouin-Rouzeau, which remains a significa (...)

25Let us add that the formula “general mobilization” explicitly stated (three times in this speech) constructs a semantic field by tacitly referring to the two World Wars that have severely hit France. It is an allusion that can be reconstructed from an intertext, which may not necessarily be prominent in the memory of all French people.6 If, nevertheless, the allusion is identified, it can unite the French by exerting on them the authority of tradition, in the sense of the memory of the past. Of course, the state of emergency atmosphere is likely to cause this effect on its own.

263) The pragmatic argument provides a third way of constructing a leadership ethos through the analogy of general mobilization. The first speech is full of allusions to the state of emergency, though there is no explicit mention of “state of emergency” or “war.” The phrase “general mobilization” is used in the second speech of March 16 to reinforce the threat posed by the pandemic through the appeal to fear, which is a form of argument from the negative consequences (Walton 2000). With the phrase “general mobilization” Macron aims to make the French more disciplined by suggesting that if they are not, the consequences will be extremely serious. The argument from fear aims to make people obey the speaker and allows him to exercise his authority.

274) This is consistent with the metaphor of war explicitly stated in the second speech, dated March 16, and implied in one of the sentences preceding the end of the same speech, according to which “the generous soul of the French has allowed France to face the most difficult of trials.” Here, the metaphor of war is explicit: “We are at war, in a sanitary war, indeed...” The lexeme “war” is repeated seven times (only the first mention makes it clear that it is a health war). Macron’s statement about the extreme situation of war justifies the exceptional measures of confinement and confirms him in his official functions of head of the armed forces but more widely of Head of State.

2.2.2. The image of the leader

28The fact that a large number of French people have not respected the instructions since the first speech leads the President to harden his tone, and to use discursive procedures which show a more marked exercise of authority, even an authoritarian tendency (absent from the first address): a. a threat of sanctions in the event of infringement of the rules; b. an explicit demand for obedience; c. the use of a discourse of authority that is expressed in sentences with an impersonal subject (“one must not…”) thus proceeding to an enunciative erasure. Beyond his image of Army Chief, Macron adopts one of the four postures of authority listed by Kojève: that of the leader (“le chef”).

29In the speech of March 16, Macron indeed reminds the French that in case they do not listen to the instructions, the State can use coercion and force people to respect the sanitary measures adopted against Covid-19. This reminder is brief because he does not want “legitimate violence” to elicit obedience. The President knows that if individuals refuse to follow the recommendations, the French police system will not be sufficient. Nevertheless, he declares that “Any infringement to these rules will be sanctioned.” The words “violation, rules, sanction” form a triptych that legitimizes repression from a legal point of view. It is interesting to note that this authority figure is not present in the first address because at the time the measures were less directive and the potential use of force would probably have been poorly accepted, especially since the President is speaking six days after he went to the theater.

30But the chief’s authoritative discourse is not limited to the idea of ​​repression, Macron takes the opportunity to restore his image as Head of State and confirms his power as a standard-setter by stating “I set new rules, we set prohibitions.” Indeed, the situation requires an evolution of the laws that govern the daily life of the French, and this situation offers the opportunity to reaffirm the presidential role. But on this subject as well, this reminder is expressed very quickly, and it is absolutely not at the heart of the authority that Emmanuel Macron wants to display in his speech. Finally, we must also point out that the sentence on the new rules continues with “there will be controls.” Controlling is not punishing; in the address, the speaker does not want to appear too severe because the link between new laws and punishment does not encourage people to obey from their own will, and he knows that the fight against Covid-19 can only be effective if people are persuaded of the usefulness of the directives issued. This need for persuasion will thus be expressed through a discourse that will be that of the judge and the father. Contrary to Hannah Arendt’s (1968: 93) assertion, argumentation is clearly an integral part of the discursive construction of authority.

2.2.3. The Father: A President protective of the French

31Macron develops two types of discourse displaying a fatherly authority. To show that he cares for the French he will, on the one hand, use a discourse of explanation on how to protect himself and others from Covid-19, and on the other hand, provide life advice.

32A speech of explanation

33The speech of explanation is present as early as March 12, but it will be accentuated very logically in the speech of March 16, which is the speech about containment. At first, Emmanuel Macron explains the basic gestures to avoid being contaminated, giving simple and precise explanations on the barrier gestures to respect:

This means washing your hands long enough with soap or hydroalcoholic gels. This means greeting without kissing or shaking hands so as not to transmit the virus. This means keeping one meter. These gestures may seem trivial to you. They save lives, lives. Therefore, my dear compatriots, I solemnly call upon you to adopt them.

34But we can also observe that in the last sentence of this passage, the speaker goes back to a more official discourse in which the authority of the Head of State intervenes again. He does it by using the words “my dear compatriots” which allows to keep a distance between the speaker and the listeners, as well as by using the adverb “solemnly” which is not part of the vocabulary of proximity. And above all, he does it by recurring to the direct call to action in “I call upon you [...] to adopt them.” He will also advise the French, as a parent might do to his children if the disease appeared, by declaring “Without serious signs, let’s contact our attending physician. Let’s call the ambulance and go to the hospital only in case of high fever” (March 16). Later, when the confinement was announced, a more authoritarian explanation appeared. The advice of March 12 was transformed into caring commands in the speech of March 16: “As of noon tomorrow and for at least 15 days, our trips will be greatly reduced.” “Outdoor gatherings, family or friendly gatherings will no longer be permitted.”. “You risk infecting your friends, your parents, your grandparents, endangering the health of your loved ones.” (March 16)

35The text displays a certain authority while maintaining a discourse that is more a matter of advice to follow than of order to execute. We can see that Macron intends not to rush the French; he wants them to voluntarily adopt the right gestures. We are witnessing on the part of the President a rather unusual attention paid to his fellow citizens. He does not just recall his instructions; he also advises the French on what to do during lockdown, like a father advising his child so that he takes the right path. In this attentive posture, the President tries to modify the pejorative images of his person as a leader disconnected from the public and indifferent to the weakest.

36Advice for living a good life

37According to Léo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey (1994), for Aristotle, there are three kinds of life, the life of pleasure, the political life and the philosophical life. These concepts can be found in part of Macron’s address. At some point, the President provides advice on what to do to keep a positive attitude in the face of lockdown. We can find here allusions to the concepts of the philosopher on political life and philosophical life; they are supposed to help the French to abandon, without too many regrets, their life of pleasure impossible in times of lockdown. The President thus advises developing social relations with one’s family or loved ones to prevent confinement to become synonymous with extreme isolation. Attention to others, telephone or letter exchanges are recommended so that each human being can develop his own social ethics. The speaker also uses the imperative to recommend “this good life:” “Write, call, get news, protect by limiting the visits” (March 12).

38Macron also relativizes the respect of the law in favor of the conservation of this social ethic, just as Aristotle expressed a tension between the concepts of “justice” and “friendship”: “This should not prevent us from keeping the link, from calling our loved ones, from giving news, from organizing things with our neighbors, from inventing new solidarities between generations, from remaining, as I told you last Thursday, profoundly solidary...” (March 16).

39This logic continues with the promotion of the philosophical life when the President advises the French to take advantage of the time of confinement to cultivate and learn. He adopts an attitude very close to that of Aristotle when he stresses the importance of finding the “sense of things” or “of the essential.” Here’s what he says in his March 16 address: “Read, also find that sense of the essential […] Culture, education, a sense of things is important.”

40Thus, the President dismisses in times of pandemic “the life of pleasure” to privilege the “political life” (the relationship with others) and the “philosophical life” to preserve the happiness of the French, no longer by consumption and leisure but through the creation of a new social relationship and another understanding of the world. As Aristotle points out, people will be able to achieve “pleasure through virtue.” This speech shows the philosophical influences of Emmanuel Macron as well as the cultivation from the beginning of his term of office of an image of “roi philosophe” (philosopher king). Such a posture is rarely built in this genre of discourse.

41However, it must be emphasized that this attitude raises a problem beyond the good intentions of the President. Advising people to call one’s family or get back to reading falls within the private sphere, and the intervention of politics in the private sphere poses a democratic problem (Arendt 1972). These passages—which do not structure the presidential addresses—show the limits that politics must respect to preserve democratic values, even in times of crisis. This is all the truer since the controversial, and therefore democratic, debate tends to fade away in Macron’s address.

2.2.4.  The Judge: defining good and evil despite the need for unity

42In his first speech, the President cannot help but express his own political opinion on the event, while continuing to stage the divide he is so fond of, between nationalists and pro-Europeans. He then uses the authority of the judge in Kojève’s sense, determining who are “the good and the bad guys.” The bad guys include those who have a reflex of “nationalist withdrawal” or “individualism”. Macron declares: “The other pitfall would be the individualist withdrawal” (March 12) and also “On the one hand, the nationalist withdrawal. This virus has no passport. We need to join forces, coordinate our responses, cooperate. France is hard at work. European coordination is essential, and I will see to it” (March 12). The good guys in the presidential speech are those who believe that the answers, both economic and scientific, will be European. He declares: “Europe has all the assets to offer the world the antidote to Covid-19. Teams are also hard at work inventing a vaccine” (March 12) or “We Europeans will not let a financial and economic crisis spread. We will react forcefully, and we will react quickly. All European governments must take the decisions to support activity and then to relaunch whatever the cost.” (March 12). Europe thus represents the hope of emerging from the crisis, both through economic recovery and the invention of a vaccine. In other words, the Macron/Le Pen opposition remains in place for the President, despite the situation.

43One could wonder whether these partisan statements are timely in a speech where there is an appeal to general mobilization. Undoubtedly Macron thought that he could afford to maintain his political position because, on March 12, when he pronounces this speech, the idea of ​​​​a lockdown with an obligation of voluntary obedience does not yet occur to the French leaders. Political life seems to be able to continue its course despite Covid-19. On the other hand, during the address of March 16 which announces the confinement, expressions of political division are absent; they give way to a search for national unity because France is declared at war. Controversy and political differentiation then become impossible: they would be counterproductive. This change expresses the effort not to say anything annoying. Macron reacts pragmatically to manage his image as well as possible.

3. Ethos and authority construction: credibility and trust

44The question is thus which rhetorical procedures the French President uses in the first two addresses on Covid-19 to build an ethos worthy of trust, and to reinforce a damaged credibility, a process likely to facilitate the acceptance of the sanitary measures by the public, and at the same time to repair his image as a leader. It is not enough to adopt models of authority likely to inspire respect; the leader must persuade the citizens to rally around the increasingly severe measures demanded, especially in the case of the second address, introducing the necessity of containment. Failure to have the measures adopted means overcrowded hospitals, lack of capacity to treat everyone, the necessity to make painful decisions, and the loss of lives. This issue comes up against positions opposed to the one expressed by Macron: the positions that minimize the catastrophe or think that the leaders are trying to panic the public (by adopting excessive measures), or even “conspiracy theories” that do not believe in the real gravity of the pandemic. The speaker must therefore ensure compliance with the sanitary measures and guarantee the effectiveness of the instructions by getting people to listen to him and trust him.

45To do this, E. Macron recurs to several procedures: the rational justification of the instructions imposed, and the deployment of positive images of his person likely to revive confidence.

3.1. The justification of instructions by the argument from authority

46To make citizens act in accordance with the instructions, the speaker must justify them. They must be appropriate to the situation, and credible. Reciprocally, Macron’s credibility partly depends on the appropriateness of the measures he enacts; there is a strong relationship between the act and the person (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969 [1958]).

47In the two addresses on Covid 19, the President relies on scientists to justify the instructions (barrier gestures: masks, gel, respect for social distances). It is thus on science that the presidential speech builds its legitimation. We are witnessing a transfer of authority from the politicians to the scientists since the first are only implementing what the second are recommending. As a result, belief is no longer placed in politics but in science, even though we know that in recent years this belief has been called into question by the risks that scientific progress brings with genetic and other manipulations (Beck 2001). But this distancing from science, which has led the French to vaccinate less and less, for example, seems to operate much less with the need to know about the new disease. As a result, recourse to experts serves not only to establish the validity of the instructions but also to get the population to act. Since any argument from authority has repercussions on the person who uses it (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969), Macron presents himself as credible and at the same time as competent by the very fact of recurring to epistemic authority. The mention of science as a principle confers upon him the image of a president of progress and objectivity in an approach very close to positivism (Mayaffre 2021).

48The first discourse relies heavily on authorization by expert opinion. Let us recall that the argument from authority is defined as the appeal to an authority that guarantees the truth of what is said, that is, an argument offered through the mediation of an agent considered credible (Angenot 2013). Emmanuel Macron’s first speech on March 12, 2020, asks the French to respect barrier gestures. He evokes scientific authority very early in the speech, insisting on the principle of science guiding the government’s actions: “One principle guides us in defining our actions, it has guided us since the beginning to anticipate this crisis and then to manage it for several weeks, and it must continue to do so: it is confidence in science.” Science is an impersonal authority that can be deemed objective.

49This principle quickly takes shape in the figure of the experts, who must be listened to: it is important “to listen to those who know.” The transition between science that inspires confidence, and the scientists seems natural, as if it were self-evident; however, they are not to be confused. The opinions of scientists diverge and are not unanimous (one example among others would be the opinion of Professor Didier Raoult concerning the effectiveness of treatment by chloroquine). The scientists themselves, in the specific case of the coronavirus, do not know all the effects and characteristics of the disease, nor do they possess a magic remedy. Many of them declare not to be acquainted with the coronavirus. Nevertheless, the Head of State refers to them as an unquestionable source of knowledge, in eulogistic terms of a hyperbolic type: “[In France] we have the best virologists, the best epidemiologists, specialists of great renown, clinicians too.” Furthermore, the experts’ discourse is presented as homogeneous whereas this homogeneity is a discursive construction intended to achieve its objective: “Listening to those who know.” It directly serves the need to justify the anti-Covid measures to enforce them.

50The recourse to expert authority facilitates the request to respect certain measures that might seem radical, such as the closing of educational settings: “From Monday and until further notice, nurseries, schools, colleges, high schools and universities will be closed for a simple reason: our children and our youngest, again according to the scientists, are those who spread, it seems, the virus most rapidly.” The formulation “again according to scientists” at this precise point, just after the announcement of radical measures, reflects Macron’s need to immediately support the instruction with an authority more reliable than the political one. The hedge “it seems” reinforces the impression that the speaker himself is uncertain whether children spread the virus. He implies that he was hesitating to adopt a measure that could be considered excessive and unjustified, especially as it goes against an essential value in the so-called land of Human Rights, the value of freedom. It is interesting in this regard to mention Origgi’s (2015) observation that expertise is authoritarian and undemocratic, although it is used precisely to support the democratic process.

3.2. A value-based argumentation to reinforce authority

51To achieve a practical goal, that of enforcing compliance with his instructions, the President develops a value-based argumentation. These values are related to the objective to be reached. In the first address, Macron declares:

The second [priority] is to curb the epidemic. Why is that? The Minister of Health and the Director General of Health have explained it to you several times: to avoid the accumulation of patients in respiratory distress in our emergency and resuscitation services. We must continue to gain time, and for this, I will ask you to continue to make sacrifices and rather to do more, but for our collective interest.

52If we proceed according to the instructions, we will achieve the desired situation, namely, to gain time, with fewer seriously ill patients and less overload on the hospitals. In short, we will delay the spread of the disease. This argument from the consequences, which should determine the course of action to be taken (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969: 267), is based on values: the values of solidarity/fraternity and the common good, mentioned earlier. The system of values is therefore not cut off from the reasoning: on the contrary, it underlies its objectives. Here, the goal is not only to justify the instructions but to build the authority that Macron exercises to achieve his objective.

3.3. Goodwill or eunoia

53To gain the confidence of the audience, the speaker must also show goodwill, according to Aristotle. This benevolence is shown, in this case, towards all the French: “I also want to salute tonight the composure that you have shown. [...] All of you were able to face up to the situation without giving in to anger or panic. Better still, by adopting the right gestures...”. The President flatters the French, while using a pedagogical method: transmitting a message (here, the instructions) in a positive way without resorting at this stage to the threat of sanctions (contrary to his more brittle attitude in the second address).

  • 7 Also called mythopoesis by Van Leeuwen (2007), this process consists in telling a story that gratif (...)

54In addition, benevolence is expressed in the use of anecdotes or storytelling7, as in the following example, borrowed from the first address:

We will also mobilize students and young retirees. Exceptional measures will be taken in this sense, and many have already begun. I want to thank them. A few days ago, I saw a magnificent, moving, exemplary mobilization at the Paris emergency service, where students, a few months away from their competitive examination, were there to answer calls, to help, and where doctors who had just retired came back to help.

  • 8 As he himself stated in an interview (in words that have been misinterpreted).
  • 9 Another example is the “Great Debate” that he led.

55The anecdote serves, among other functions, to expose the personality of the speaker (Oldenburg 2014), and for Jamieson (1988:152) it leads to the suspension of the interlocutor’s judgment. In this brief narrative, the Head of State shows himself to be close to the people; he is far from staying in his ivory tower. This is important because E. Macron has long been criticized for being a “Jupiterian president.”8 He is therefore seeking to rectify the negative image that has been attached to him since the beginning of his term in office, as he has tried to do many times. One memorable photo comes to mind in this respect, where he is seen in conversation with a homeless man in the middle of the night9.

56This narrative also serves to encourage individuals to mobilize and “help out” by rewarding those who have already done so with evaluative and affective qualifiers, such as “magnificent,” “exemplary,” “moving.” This is an argument based on emulation, which is the opposite of the argument from fear. It is about exercising a benevolent authority, a kind of positive education of the public in which the most valiant are pointed out to suggest to the others to imitate them.


57The specificity of Macron’s speech is first due to the particular political situation in which he finds himself, as well as to the deficit of legitimacy and authority from which he suffers at the beginning of the pandemic. The problem is his deteriorated public image before the health crisis. In addition, the Covid-19 crisis brings new difficulties in the form of severe restrictions of the citizens’ freedoms.

58To be listened to and obeyed, the president must repair his image. That is why he manifests his institutional legitimacy while reinforcing it by the legitimacy conferred upon him by the facts that he acts in conformity with the shared values of the community: the common good, caring for the weakest, solidarity. This legitimacy must enable the leader to establish his authority, which is based on the respect due to the leader and on the credibility that he seeks to establish. He proceeds by reinforcing each component of the Aristotelian ethos. First, practical wisdom (phronesis) is highlighted in the President’s ability to organize information gathered from the best specialists. Second, the values on which he relies, such as solidarity and moderation, are part of Aristotle’s values of virtue (aretè). These values constitute the moral character which is, according to Aristotle, the most powerful means of persuasion. Third, the goodwill (eunoia) of the President is manifested, among other things, in the praise given to the public for its appropriate behavior (at a given moment). In addition to this, the speaker adopts authority postures rooted in the great models and myths of the Republic: the Father who gives explanations and life advice, the leader who has a project to manage, the master and the judge.

59What emerges from this discourse is that the President is undoubtedly engaged in image repair, but in an indirect way. There is no explicit mention on his part of the accusations made against him, and he does not recur to the image repair strategies listed in the scholarly literature, the various categories of which are absent from his addresses. The re-elaboration of his image of self (Amossy 2010) takes place between the lines, in a subtle way. It is linked to the consolidation of the leader’s legitimacy and authority in his addresses to the nation at a time of health crisis. Since the goal is to get the French to act, it is essential to build public confidence in the leader (or his discourse). This analysis shows that the president—and his team—are well aware of the degradation of authority and legitimacy that risks spoiling a crucial persuasion enterprise in the management of the health crisis. In his speech, Macron uses ingredients likely to persuade the French: appeal to common values, logically valid and effective arguments (pragmatic argument, from the consequences), practical wisdom, postures that reinforce the plausibility of his claims and his legitimacy (which does not mean, of course, that he succeeds in convincing all the French).

60It is thus by reinforcing his legitimacy and authority that Emmanuel Macron is indirectly repairing his image. This article shows where the distinction lies between these two notions – legitimacy and authority—which tend to be conflated in the scholarly literature. The analysis allowed us to show the specificity of the discursive construction of each of these two axes. At the same time, the examination of the case study highlights the ways in which legitimacy and authority are built in the discourse, and their relationship to the three components of ethos. The discursive and rhetorical means that should allow E. Macron to be listened to and to have his measures respected are also those that contribute to the construction of an individual ethos aimed at repairing his battered image. We hope that this analysis can bring a contribution not only to the understanding of a specific case study but also, more generally, to a better understanding of the discursive practices of leaders faced with a deficit of legitimacy and authority, particularly in times of crisis.

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2 Close collaborator of the President punching during a demonstration with an illegal police badge.

3 The doctor-host Michel Cymes in Quotidien on TMC: "It is not a gripette, but it remains a viral disease like we have every year.

4 Agnes Buzin, Friday, January 24, 2020, statement at the exit of the Council of Ministers: "In terms of risks for France, import risk analyses are regularly modeled by research teams. The risk of importing cases from Wuhan is moderate, it is now practically zero because the city is isolated. The risk of secondary cases around an imported case is very low, and the risk of spreading the coronavirus is very low.


6 It is a slogan that evokes the war of 1914, according to Audouin-Rouzeau, which remains a significant event in the memory of the French.

7 Also called mythopoesis by Van Leeuwen (2007), this process consists in telling a story that gratifies or punishes the protagonists as needed, to legitimize a path.

8 As he himself stated in an interview (in words that have been misinterpreted).

9 Another example is the “Great Debate” that he led.

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Keren Sadoun-Kerber et Stéphane Wahnich, « Emmanuel Macron facing Covid-19: A president in search of image repair »Argumentation et Analyse du Discours [En ligne], 28 | 2022, mis en ligne le 25 avril 2022, consulté le 21 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Keren Sadoun-Kerber

Tel Aviv University, ADARR

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Stéphane Wahnich


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