French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech at the ceremony for Armistice Day, 100 years after the end of World War 1, at the Arc de Triomphe, in Paris, France, November 11 2018. Picture: REUTERS/LUDOVIC MARIN
French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech at the ceremony for Armistice Day, 100 years after the end of World War 1, at the Arc de Triomphe, in Paris, France, November 11 2018. Picture: REUTERS/LUDOVIC MARIN

French President Emmanuel Macron chose a solemn occasion to make a critical distinction this weekend. On the centenary of the end of World War 1, beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in front of about 90 world leaders, he recalled how Europe “almost committed suicide”.  He said “old demons” were resurfacing and history was threatening to repeat itself, and that was threatening Europe’s recent history of peace.

And then the distinction: “Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism,” he said. “Nationalism is its betrayal. In saying ‘Our interests first and others don’t matter’, we erase what is most precious to a nation, what makes it live, what makes it great, what is most important: its moral values.”

The comments were obviously directed at US President Donald Trump, particularly since in the speech he also decried “the selfishness of countries that regard only their own interests”. Macron made the comments in the context of a growing sense in Europe that the US has “deserted” the continent.

Macron’s comments reflect both aptly and, ironically, very poorly the essence of the problem. Macron argues that patriotism and nationalism are opposites. In fact, technically, they are not.

It’s a strange moment for the world. The ice floes that defined the second half of the 20th century are breaking up, and what will emerge is not yet clear. The “Western alliance” that solidified the world after World War 2 is now a shadow of its former self; its members are bickering, its leaders are losing support to nationalists.  

And, of course, new superpowers are emerging: China and India, which actually or potentially throw the global balance into a state of disarray.

Macron’s comments reflect both aptly and, ironically, very poorly the essence of the problem. Macron argues that patriotism and nationalism are opposites. In fact, technically, they are not. Patriotism is formally defined as the avid support for your country. Nationalism is the avid support for your nation. They are often used as synonyms for each other. 

Macron seemed to be trying to draw a distinction between patriotism, which he clearly regards as a positive force, with nationalism, which he regards negatively. Patriotism, he would seemingly argue, consists of supporting your country but not opposing others supporting theirs, while nationalism would consist of supporting your nation first and foremost to the exclusion of others. 

It’s a fine distinction, but rooted in its own context; one of Macron’s political missions is to strengthen the European experiment, and inevitably put France in a pivotal position within that alliance. Would that be nationalism or patriotism? And what of the rest of the world? Should we all be doing as Europe is doing? Ceding national control to multilateral or regional organisations?

Macron’s comments are open to another criticism: they seem inappropriate at an occasion commemorating a moment in history when the US did, in fact, make significant sacrifices to secure Europe. The US may have joined the war late, but it had no real strategic reason to enter at all. 

Yet, somewhere in Macron’s perplexing distinction, there is a germ of relevance. Patterns of life and work are being disturbed everywhere by a new internationalism that builds new industries and undermines old ones at an increasing pace. Mobility is increasing and “globalisation” is affecting once secure jobs.

The effects are often less disruptive than people fear, but the fears do exist. Those fears create a ripe environment for political exploitation, not just in the US but in Europe too, evidenced partly by Macron’s own unpopularity in his own country. The only real way out of this is to change the way people learn and are taught. People are more likely now to have more than one profession during their lifetimes, and they will be competing against not just their own countrymen but those of other countries too. Citizens need the skills base to be able to learn not only a profession but how to re-engineer themselves. 

As Macron says, the danger that citizens will turn to nationalism in order to solve the problem will have unanticipated consequences that could turn ugly. In that sense, the terrible memory of the War to End All Wars is its most important legacy.