The war in Ukraine through the eyes of France, or the Great Replacement of Fears

When we talk about the impact of the war in Ukraine on the election campaign, the concepts of shock, even crushing, often come to mind. The media compete with the expression of war. The war is crushing the village, we hear from all sides, it “Lead” and even she “torpedo”. She has it “hit on the forehead”. Combat semantics, which, like an infection, spreads from the theater of military operations in Ukraine to the lexical field of the countryside.

Another expression is flourishing, which no longer refers to confrontation, but to penetration into hostile territory. War would break into the village, some even talk about“break in”, a word that refers to an imaginary besieged fortress that actually dominated the countryside for six months. None of these metaphors can shed light on the implications of the war in Ukraine for the current campaign. It was not the war that broke into the presidential campaign, let it be known that it was Ukraine that the Russian army broke into, and the election campaign was not crushed by Russian tanks, quite the contrary; it was seized, cut down by the war.

To other fears, to other leaders

In a strange irony of history, everything that the campaign had stubbornly ignored for six months surfaced in broad daylight. The terms of the public debate have been changed. The framework that limited public debate to immigration issues exploded. Suddenly, it was no longer about the threat of mass immigration, but about the right of asylum for Ukrainian refugees. And the big bad wolf was no longer radical Islamism, but the autocrat of Moscow. In one night, he went from south to east, returning to his old Cold War habits.

All of a sudden, the country began to evaluate its ties with its neighbors in Europe, its urgent need for natural resources, its dependence on Russian gas, its reckless membership in military alliances, the consequences of its energy choices, in short, all the components of a global hypercrisis that it refused to see so far. . The old fears stirred up by the far right have been pushed out of the national pandemonium and replaced by others: a new Chernobyl, a nuclear conflict, famine, a fuel crisis…

The war has pulled a damp world out of the formwork, full of threats and contradictions.

A few days later we witnessed a great replacement of fears.

Which of the actors or presidents was on the maneuver with an iPhone in hand?

The war in Ukraine not only changed the themes of the campaign, but also imposed a new theater of leadership. Since the days of Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro and many others, we have known that the exercise of power can become parody without losing credibility. The war actualized this grotesque force, combining force and fiction, tragedy and farce in the same reality show mode.

Suddenly, it became possible for the actor of the television series to become not only the president, but also a military leader, a hero of the resistance. He spoke live via video conference with members of the US Congress and European parliaments, united by a common passion for the “Servant of the People”, the actor and the martyr.

For leadership is as much, if not more, exercised by the effect of staging than by the power of the executive to act. And in this war, control over the screens is as important as logistics, and televans are for the movement of tanks on the borders. After all, the ideal of leadership is a war without tanks, a metaphorical war. This is what Macron tried to do during the pandemic by launching “We are at war” which we found a bit exaggerated. “Nice try!”we wanted to answer him.

Tests of power

But this time the war is here forever. The miraculous king gives way to the commander. The official photographer of the Élysée Palace claimed responsibility for the portrait, but she called for no signs of authority; rather fatigue, exhaustion. The President changed his mask and barrier gestures to jeans and a hooded sweatshirt. The president’s tired look, accentuated by a tousled wig and a three-day-old beard.

You may find this indecent. And this is from a certain point of view. But this is part of the image regime that belongs to the new theater of leadership. The question of clothing is not accidental, it is part of it: dressing in Latin means clothes and political vestments. Did he want to imitate President Zelensky, as the foreign press claims, to snatch from him in the midst of the re-election campaign his symbolic toga, his aura? Without a doubt, Macron’s photos resembled Zelensky’s selfies, but wasn’t Zelensky imitating himself? Which of the actors or presidents was on the maneuver with an iPhone in hand?

The portrait of a president at war sought to convey an impression of weariness or confusion, a president who wets his shirt despite his hopes of success.

It doesn’t really matter in picture mode, the purpose of which is to keep them in sync. Visibility at this price. For Zelensky, the president of a country partially occupied by Russia, as well as for Macron, a president in the process of being re-elected, the system of representation could not assert uncontested power, but testify to its weakness.

Far from displaying traits of power and sovereignty, the portrait of the president at war sought to convey the impression of weariness or disarray, a president who wets his shirt despite his hopes of success. The main thing is to testify to the difficulty of the enterprise, the severity of the transition, to carry and wave the stigmata. The staging of oneself, which can shock, no longer belongs to the embodiment, but to the show; an aesthetic in which the body is no longer transfigured by the majesty of the sovereign, but marked by the trials of power.


Metamorphoses of Vladimir Zelensky, actor of the series servant of the people, like a hero emerging from the ruins of Kyiv to embody the resistance of the Ukrainian people, is part of this changing political era and this new regime of visibility. Russia’s war against Ukraine is not just between two armies; he opposes two semiotic and scenographic regimes. Putin owns the classic theatrics of the vertical, a lonely and distant power (his long table). Zelensky is also horizontal, sharing in social networks and the proximity of a smartphone. He masters the double play of mockery and dramatization. One in containment, the other in simulation.

Zelensky clown or hero? Chaplin or Churchill? Both of them. Farce does not follow tragedy in the periodicity often quoted by Marx. And it doesn’t precede it. She becomes one with her. Farce precedes tragedy. There is the real Ukraine, captured by Putin, and the chronic Ukraine of Zelensky, captured by social networks, a parallel world that unfolds through billions of images on TikTok, Twitter and Instagram.

According to the New York Times, videos of a Ukrainian fighter pilot known as the “Ghost of Kyiv” who allegedly shot down a dozen Russian planes in one day have already racked up almost 10 million views on Twitter, more than 6 million on YouTube. and up to 200 million views on TikTok. It was actually edited footage from a video game.

Billions of images, memes, videos feed the parallel universe of superheroes, turning the main characters of the conflict into Star Wars or Marvel characters.

If the Arab Spring of 2011 were called “Twitter Revolution”, Ukrainian resistance can be called “TikTok resistance”. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not the first war on social media, but the first war on TikTok, the success of which is due to the ease and speed of use. TikTok is a video platform that can shape the perception of conflict in real time. From February 20 to February 28, the number of views of videos with the #ukraine tag increased from 6.4 billion to 17.1 billion, which is 1.3 billion views per day, 928,000 views per minute.

Billions of images, memes, videos feed the parallel universe of superheroes, turning the main characters of the conflict into Star Wars or Marvel characters.

War and fans

“It is deeply discouraging how a bloody, brutal and world-threatening invasion can be turned into a gigantic sporting spectacle. wrote author Ben Coates for Politico. To be sure, there are many brave journalists, ordinary Ukrainians and others who are doing a wonderful job covering the war and sharing valuable thoughts about it. But in many corners of platforms like Twitter and Reddit, too often it seems like the goal is not to inform but to entertain.”

Supporting the Ukrainian resistance should not make us indifferent to this kind of social media drift.

Logic, which researcher Ashley Hink described in a completely different context as “fan citizenship”. “I think we are seeing an adaptation of the cultural logic of fan communities to political participation in general, and in this case to a situation of war.”writes Nibro Petersen, an expert on “fan culture” at the University of Copenhagen. “This means that we can imagine the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky, an ordinary politician in an extraordinary situation, as the Captain of Ukraine, and his cabinet as the Avengers.”

Some, carried away by this aestheticization of war, went so far as to glorify“sensual aesthetics of war” And “Apocalypse atmosphere” from Ukraine. Supporting the Ukrainian resistance should not make us indifferent to this kind of social media drift. Because its consequences are much worse than propaganda or strategies to deceive states that have always tried to control public opinion and the perception of the battlefield. Ultimately, they run the risk of blurring any line between reality and fiction, but even more so of making even the ability to be exposed to crimes frivolous.

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“War should not be a source of entertainment, Ben Coates says but now that’s how they treat her. you’ve had enough squid game as well as Lupine? Why not watch footage of the kindergarten bombing with a drone?”

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