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French linguist uses AI to show what Macron has in common with Blair

How artificial intelligence software predicted what President Macron would say in his first re-election speech and his surprising inspiration

French linguist Prof. Damon Mayaffre fed more than 1,000 Macron speeches into an artificial intelligence (AI) programme – and was able to predict the president’s first ‘re-election address’ with extraordinary accuracy.

The professor’s analysis of Mr Macron’s style turned up another intriguing fact: the President “sometimes literally plagiarises Tony Blair”. 

Prof Mayaffre was so impressed by his AI analysis that he wrote a book last year on Mr Macron’s communications techniques, including the speech that his algorithm had generated. 

He said it was what Mr Macron would say when he announced he was standing for re-election. 

AI generated speech nearly identical

A few months later on November 9, in a nationwide address many see as the opening salvo of his re-election bid, Mr Macron gave a speech which was nearly identical to the text Prof Mayaffre’s AI system had predicted.

It was an astounding result for the AI machine. 

Prof Mayaffre, of the CNRS national research agency and Uni­versité Nice Sophia Antipolis, said: “This means politicians have a linguistic identity and discourse which they cannot change easily and which were deeply anchored in their brains as children, like in the rest of us.”

Using information from Mr Macron’s talks since 2016, Prof Mayaffre said the AI “can predict what Macron will say in a day, or a month, or in two months, based on what he has said before, unless some event comes along, like Covid, which disturbs things”. 

It learns to recognise and predict 

He and his team programmed their AI machine to recognise parts of speech, language tics and vocabulary, and it learns as it goes along.

Prof Mayaffre, who has analysed the speeches of every French president since 1958, said the Macron vocabulary is second only to Georges Pom­pidou’s but is surprising with his ability to rapidly change registers from “literary French snob to working class, and even vulgar, as when he said emmerder”. 

Macron copies Blair style

The AI also compared his speech with Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, but the biggest similarity is to former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. “What I show in my book is Macron copies, and sometimes literally plagiarises, the success of Tony Blair.” 

Mr Macron avoids any reference to Mr Blair “as that would make him look like a man from the 20th century”, but he is copying the model.

Citing work by British linguist Nor­man Fairclough, Prof Mayaffre says one of the most concrete examples “is a discourse which never takes sides and uses ‘as well as’, which with Macron is en même temps”.

This Blairisme, as he calls it, plays to the Left while speaking to the Right and “manifests itself through phrases such as ‘equity as well as performance’ or ‘industry as well as the workers’ or ‘productivity as well as social justice’.” Mr Macron is a “British counterfeit”, with ‘Macronism’ often a literal translation of 1990s Blairite language.

“This sitting in the centre and trying to satisfy the Left and the Right is textual Tony Blair.” Although Mr Blair has a tarnished image in France, there is little doubt that he is Mr Macron’s model.

“The idea of speaking on the Left while giving economic guarantees to the Right is very Blairite.”

Macron used popular expressions to get gilets jaunes on-side

Until the November 2018 gilets jaunes revolt of low-income families, Mr Macron gave few interviews to the French press and relied heavily on controlled images and scripted speeches.

He responded to the gilets jaunes with a discourse that moved left, dropping his “precious language” for more popular expressions.

He saw off the gilets jaunes by organising a Great Debate “which was more than anything else a monologue”.

These ‘monologues’ could last for hours and were on news channels seemingly every day for three months.

Style change to deal with Covid

With Covid, Mr Macron again changed his language, abandoning his free-market rigour to “whatever it costs” and increasing debt to 116% of GDP. “In just a few months,” Prof Mayaffre said, “Macron went from wanting to privatise the Paris airports to wanting to nationalise Air France”.

Often derided as ‘Jupiter’ for his aloof style, he overtook Sarkozy as the record-holder for using the terms ‘I want’, ‘I’ and ‘me’, but toned down his rhetoric against the gilets jaunes. 

Today, as we enter the election period, ‘we’ has replaced ‘I’ and there is also much use of ‘together’. 

Although one of his traits is to use the future tense, Mr Macron’s “I will” has become “we have” and AI analysis of the November 9 address shows he now leans 70% to the Right, which is a sign of the times.

Not all things change. A YouTube video has Mr Macron’s speech at his wedding in 2007 “and we have the impression we’re listening to the Macron of today… 20 years ago”.

The software cannot replace human innovation

Prof Mayaffre said: “Yes, it is disappointing for democracy that we have the impression a machine can produce election speeches which will convince voters as if it were a real person.”

Against this, he says reassuringly that the machine cannot innovate. The algorithm is based on what has been said previously.

Because the machine is so good at writing speeches for target audiences in a politician’s style, Prof Mayaffre’s team have had to refuse requests from some politicians and communications experts to help write their speeches. 

He has told France 3 TV they might ask their AI to write the victory speeches of potential winners – but, for ethical reasons, will not get involved in the campaign.

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