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Monsieur Hulot’s Principles

Macron’s former minister of ecology has written a manifesto which make the cliches in Hallmark greetings cards sound profound. The question is, why did Le Monde publish them?

No opinion is worth expressing that is not also worth contradicting (except, perhaps, this one); nevertheless, clichés have their attraction. They are the teddy-bears of the mind, or, to change the metaphor slightly, the mental lifebuoys we cling to in times of stormy intellectual or political weather. They are the sovereign remedy for thought, which is always a rather painful activity.

‘Can’t you stop me thinking, doctor?’ asked some of my  patients in the prison in which I worked, in the hope of a prescription of pills that would make them feel fuzzy and incapable of coherent mentation. For those who prefer a less drastic or non-pharmacological solution to the discomforts wrought by the contemplation of the world and their part in it, there are pseudo-thoughts with comforting connotations of wisdom, generosity, goodness, kindness, benevolence, etc. They are the kind of people, I suppose, who might think that Kahil Gibran’s kitsch vapourings are profound.

I confess that I was shocked by the banality of the mind, or alternatively the cynicism, of the person who could have written and published a manifesto such as Hulot’s

They would no doubt like Nicolas Hulot’s 100 Principles for a New World, published on 7 May in Le Monde. Hulot, an ecological activist, television personality and journalist once specialising in motorcycle racing,  was M. Macron’s Minister for the Ecological and Solidary Transition (by their job titles shall ye know them) until he resigned with maximal noise in August 2018, having held the post for 15 months.

I confess that I was shocked by the banality of the mind, or alternatively the cynicism, of the person who could have written and published a manifesto such as Hulot’s – to say nothing of the astonishing lack of judgment of a respectable newspaper in publishing it. The last time that I was shocked so much by a politician’s vacuity was when I heard another Nicolas, Sarkozy this time, give a speech in person. He was like a dried pea rattling about and shaken in a tin box. He jumped around the stage making a passionate verbal noise, but nothing he said had any discernible tether to anything concrete. Within seconds of his finishing, no one could have given any account of what he had said. Is mastery of this kind of meaningless verbalisation, eloquently empty and passionately delivered, the key to political success? And if so what does it say of us, the citizens of democracies?

But to return to Hulot and his Hundred Principles. They each started ‘The time has come to…’ or ‘The time has come for…’, followed by a cliché, a truism, or a banal falsehood, all expressed with a self-satisfaction that would have made Mr Pecksniff seem like a self-doubter.

I will inflict only a few of M. Hulot’s principles on the reader, assuring him that any random selection would have produced the same numbing effect:

The time has come for us, together, to lay the first stones of a new world.

The time has come for lucidity.

The time has come for us to stop lying to ourselves.

The time has come to resuscitate our humanity.

The time has come for resilience.

The time has come to take care of and repair the planet.

The time has come to listen to the young and for the old to learn.

The time has come to applaud life.

The time has come to emancipate ourselves from dogmas.

The time has come to extricate ourselves from sterile ideologies.

The time has come to cultivate difference.

The time has come for discernment.

The principles take up almost two pages of the newspaper under the rubric of Ideas, but they are to ideas what stale cheese sandwiches are to haute cuisine. No better example of what Dr Johnson called ‘the uselessness of rhetorical sound’ is known to me.

By the end of the two pages (I read them to check that there was, indeed, no spark of real intelligence in them), two feelings in me contended for supremacy: pity and nausea. Pity because if the thoughts above, and scores of others like them, actually corresponded to anything running through their author’s mind more than fleetingly at the very most, it must be agonising to be him; and nausea because of the saccharine nature of most (but not all) the sentiments expressed, which make those of Hallmark Cards seem positively acerbic or hard-edged by comparison.

The editor of Le Monde presumably thought that these hundred principles would hold some interest for his readers: that, for example, until M. Hulot pointed out otherwise, they thought that it was not the time to honour the beauty of the world, to have empathy with others or treat them with dignity. No doubt unintentionally, this was to treat the readers with contempt, which I hope is unjustified, because readers of Le Monde are probably in the upper 5 per cent of education attainment, if not more rarefied than that.

As is quite often the case, hiding in the great mound of high-sounding bilge are quite nasty sentiments that would, if taken seriously (which thankfully they will not be), lead straight to a totalitarian society. The time is come, we are told, for just exchange rather than free exchange, for a social and solidary economy, for universal solidarity, to fix limits to what harms and no limits on what does good, to replace the ‘I’ with the ‘we’, for an end to partisan politics and for unity.

It has long been my opinion that inside every sentimentalist there is a despot trying to get out. Insofar as M. Hulot’s Hundred Principles have any value at all, it is that they illustrate to perfection, in a comparatively concise manner, the proximity of sentimentality to the potential, at least, of great brutality: for it would probably require a civil war for some of his principles were to be put into practice, the time having come for us to undo our personal and mental conditioning and to synchronise science and conscience.

The time has come – if it ever went away – for real thought.

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