Is Emmanuel Macron the oddest leader in the EU? When he became President of France last year, he made a speech at Versailles to both houses of parliament calling for a renewal of ‘the spirit of conquest’. This year, commemorating the centenary of the Armistice, he seemed more inclined to invent a project for perpetual peace, like some 18th-century rationalist. In recent days, he has demanded our fish, decided that the gilets jaunes, who are rioting about his astonishing diesel price rises to save the planet, are really a ‘brown plague’, and welcomed a report which wishes to empty France’s museums of any treasures which originated in Africa, Oceania and anywhere else that can claim victim status, and return them thither. M. Macron is the anti-populists’ populist — over-reactive, shallow, denunciatory, hogging the limelight, instinctively hostile to the ordinary citizen. He is a sort of Donald Trump in reverse — pint-sized, Gallic, politically correct and énarque — but equally vain. At first he seemed to have some vision of a dynamic, modernised EU. Now his thoughts seem more like pointless surges of anger against the masses.
Here are a few considerations which make M. Macron’s idea of restitution questionable. Why should the current government of a particular place have an automatic right to an object just because it originated in that territory? (An extreme example of the problem might be returning treasures from Palmyra to the Islamic State.) What if the works went back to places which did not know how to look after them properly? What if their return reduces their accessibility for millions of people? Objects were often saved because only western collectors recognised them as art and removed them from places where they might have been neglected or even, for cultural, political or religious reasons, destroyed. The noble idea of preserving art in museums is a distinctively western one, especially our notion of a museum as ‘encyclopaedic’ and therefore global not national. Is not the spread of works of art itself an impressive part of the history of art, rather as Latin and Greek became central to our tradition of learning or as Kew Gardens collects seeds from all over the world? Is President Macron trying to score a point against ex-president Chirac, who set up the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris, which attracts more than a million visitors a year and houses 450,000 objects now vulnerable to M. Macron’s reverse colonialism?
This is an extract from Charles Moore’s Spectator Notes, which appears in this week’s magazine