October 19, 2022 - 8:45am

As his (non-apocryphal) answer to to “Let them eat cake”, Emmanuel Macron modelling a designer turtleneck to encourage lowering the temperature to 19C in French homes and offices went down as well as you would expect. Le Président, as well as his Minister for Finance Bruno Le Maire, posted official videos and self-portraits in cols roulés to social media to highlight one of the recommended energy-saving gestures for the planet, France’s finances and Western unity. Other gestures include air-drying rather than spin-drying washing; taking shorter showers at a lower temperature; unplugging appliances rather than leaving them on stand-by; and turning off the lights and heating.

“Light only one bar of the electric fire, put on an extra jumper” can only work unironically if it is led by quiet example instead of Instagram posts; if the jumper is an old cardie, not an Alexandre Bompard cashmere number. Reactions came thick and fast. “We’re paying for 10 years of mistakes,” thundered the conservative weekly Valeurs Actuelles, reminding its readers that the Hollande and Macron governments had bowed to Green pressure to shut down nuclear plants: its cover featured the turtlenecked duo of Macron and Le Maire, with PM Elisabeth Borne in a puffer jacket, calling them “Les sous-doués” (the dunces) after a popular film series. On the Left, L’Obs accused the government of “cosmetic” measures. The middle ground was held by Le Point, asking whether the decidedly cool turtleneck was a coded message for French public figures trying to simultaneously project political gravitas and the kind of edginess associated with Left Bank intellos: Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Albert Camus.

But le col roulé has also become a symbol for a kind of nanny state the French are growing tired of. Back at the beginning of Covid lockdowns, France distinguished itself with especially Byzantine injunctions and regulations, punctuated by outright lies. To be allowed out of their homes for one hour in the spring of 2020, for instance, the French had to print and fill out ever-mutating Attestations Dérogatoires and Justificatifs de Déplacement stating that they were out to walk the dog, get their eyes checked or buying milk. (One of these forms had 17 boxes to fill out.)

Meanwhile, as long as necessities were lacking (masks, vaccines), spokespersons or government-mandated experts were trotted out to explain that putting on a surgical mask was such a “professional gesture” that laypeople couldn’t be trusted with it, or that the Astra-Zeneca vaccine was not yet tested for side-effects. Most ordinary French citizens pay their household bills and know that they can save by heating less and turning off unnecessary lights. Subjected to quasi-weekly flowery addresses by Emmanuel Macron high on technospeak and low in concrete facts, they don’t find them any more convincing when the president delivers them in a turtleneck.

Anne-Elisabeth Moutet is a Paris-based journalist and political commentator.