The French political scene is unquestionably in a state of crisis, with a president who, according to all opinion polls, is detested and who lacks an absolute majority in the National Assembly, as well as a startling increase in the share of votes and seats won by extremist and/or insane political parties. The actors’ handling of this scene aggravates and prolongs the crisis. However, the origins of the crisis are complex, old, and have evolved over time due to the failure of subsequent actors to address them.
I think a step back is necessary to comprehend the current French crisis. In this analysis, I consulted a variety of sources, primarily Marcel Gauchet, Philippe Renault, Jean-Claude Milner, Pierre Manent, Luc Rubin, and Jearome Fourquet, and I made an effort to sort through their writing, summarize it, and add my own observations. Any inaccuracies in the description are entirely my fault.
General de Gaulle and the constitutional legislator who drafted the Fifth Republic’s Constitution were motivated to do so by the need to replace the failed system of the Fourth Republic, which relied on a parliamentary system and electoral law that favored proportional representation, along with a nearly permanent change in the alliance map. The Constitution of the Fifth Republic bolstered the central state and executive power, allowing it to rein in Parliament, direct the actions of the judiciary, and set the pace for the economy’s performance. It also approved a system that organizes individual legislative elections over the course of two rounds, and it gave the president a stronger thorn by approving his popular election (also in two rounds, unless he receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round), which ensured the president an overwhelming legitimacy landslide for opponents.
Notably, the legislator opposed a “British” system that relies on one-round individual elections and awards the seat to the front-runner regardless of the margin of victory. The legislator refrained from endorsing such a system for a straightforward reason: at the time, the Communist Party was the most powerful party (today, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally is).
This electoral system favored the transfer of power over the culture of compromise, which has a weak origin and is not particularly popular in France. In essence, it required all right-wing and center-right currents to work together under the president’s or dominant party’s banner. The same was imposed on the left, which was detrimental to its chances due to the widespread fear of communism among voters and the superiority of the Marxist left over socialist parties. In other words, the new constitution and election law together produced a multi-party, bipolar political system, with the Gaullists and Communists dominating in the early years. Up until 1981, each bloc had a clear political and economic project to offer. The majority of the left’s factions claimed there was a chance of creating a socialist society.
The ingenuity of the Constitution of the Fifth Republic lies in the fact that it melted and satisfied no less than two important tributaries of the French political culture: the culture of parliamentary republics, constant dialogue and debate about every detail, and the culture of nostalgia for a king with absolute power and the ability to enable the state.
I make no claim that the French favor monarchy, whether it be absolute or constitutional. By this, I mean that some people long for a return to the image of a “king” who reigns supreme, who is a symbol of the nation and the state and is thus surrounded by a halo of sanctity, who embodies the strength and greatness of France, who oversees the growth and development of state performance, who keeps peace without impeding progress, who is authoritarian without compromising freedoms, who guarantees justice while empowering the executive authority, who is comparable to Louis XIII, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Charles de Gaulle, or to a lesser extent, President Mitterrand. Of course, the constitution did not address the lack of potential candidates who could represent France and uphold the office’s sanctity and prestige. This may be a contributing factor to the alarming frequency of protests in France.
It goes without saying that the right has reservations regarding parliamentary “culture” and horizontal relations, while the left has reservations regarding the idea of the leader and vertical relations. That, however, is not always the case. Consider President Mitterrand, the legendary figurehead of the left who was raised in right-wing circles and is therefore culturally associated with the right. In the presidential race, which results in the election of a leader with extensive authority, the left suffers. Without bias, one could argue that the extremist elements within the Socialist Party are to blame for the failure of President Hollande’s term and his inability to run for reelection, despite his very reasonable harvest.
Time has demonstrated the depth and significance of the 1958 Constitution’s benefits as well as its capacity to adapt to political and social changes, to counteract some negative phenomena while, of course, also causing other negative phenomena, which are its flip side. Obviously, the 1958 Constitution did undergo some changes, some of which were beneficial while others had unanticipated negative consequences.
The political landscape evolved gradually in the 1970s and more rapidly in the 1980s. As the Communist Party’s standing and influence within the left waned, voters became less concerned about the leftist bloc as a whole. With the left’s ascension to power in 1981 and the failure of its economic policy pursued between 1981 and 1983, a policy that combined nationalization with the policy of “supporting demand”, President Mitterrand was compelled to adopt an economic policy amenable to market mechanisms, thereby reducing the state’s control over the economy and prices. On the other hand, the left was successful in weakening the state’s control over the media, the executive branch’s dominance over the judiciary, and the central state’s control over local governments. In general, the failure of the left’s initial economic program compelled it to adopt an agenda of absolute freedoms that support individualism and broaden the field for activists, as well as the two projects of deepening European integration and establishing a common European currency. It also compelled it to maintain the majority of the pillars of General de Gaulle’s foreign policy – while adapting it to suit the most recent changes in reality and some leftist ideologies.
In the 1980s and 1990s, there appeared to be a centrist consensus in France, with the Gaullist Party (whose name had been changed several times), the Socialist Party, and the smaller centrist parties all adopting policies that were favorable to market forces, the welfare state, and the strengthening of European unification, while also being receptive to manifestations of individual liberation at the level of personal behavior (with strong reservations from some of the more extreme parties). Some of France’s greatest intellectuals of the time declared, perhaps prematurely, that the left-right polarization that had characterized French society since the Revolution of 1789 had come to an end.
This consensus, however, led to a number of issues, such as a decline in voter turnout and the indecision of the Gaullist and Socialist parties and their intense search for issues that set them apart and ways to appease right voters who support conservative cultural agendas and left voters who adhere to an economic strategy that rejects market mechanisms. Voters’ trust in politicians decreased as a result of the Socialist Party’s attempt to portray its transition to a socialist economy as temporary and merely a stop on the way to a socialist economy without giving up the revolutionary idea, similar to the ebb and flow of right-wing leader Chirac’s positions. This decline in the public’s trust and the elite’s credibility was aided by the exposure of elite corruption by the judicial authorities. Intriguingly, the judiciary also lost some credibility because it appeared politicized and favored pursuing the extremes of the right. We don’t claim this impression is accurate; we simply state that this impression existed. In a similar vein, the media’s credibility has diminished as it has evolved into an interest group that uses its power to push agendas and stories that are unpopular with the general public. In effect, this crisis of confidence in the majority of those engaged in public work is a significant aspect of the crisis in modern-day France.
Notably, the Socialist Party’s efforts to demonstrate its commitment to socialist ideals drove the enactment of a law in 2000 that significantly cut the number of hours workers were required to put in. This law had a detrimental, even extremely detrimental, effect on the French economy and its capacity to compete at the time of China’s and unified Germany’s rise.
One of the pillars of this centrist consensus, the European unity project, has also been widely rejected. Since 1992, such a rejection has been prevalent, grown in strength, and garnered widespread support.
There are a number of factors at play in this rejection, including the propensity of politicians to defend unpopular decisions by claiming they were following the directives of the European Commission (EC), the public’s understanding of the consequences of giving up some aspects of sovereignty, such as coinage, the complexity of the decision-making process given the widening of the membership circle, the shift of the European Union’s center from Paris to Berlin, and the realization of the decline of the French role and the rise of Germany, as well as the EC’s service of German interests. Additionally, the EC gave off the impression of being an unelected body that subscribes to a postmodern discourse and supports multiculturalism—a concept that is not accepted in France, which is proud of its culture—as well as a body that accepts immigration and is unable to provide security. Many made the connection between high crime rates in big cities and the ease of travel between European countries.
Intriguingly, some have criticized the Brussels bureaucracy for being too liberal, while others have criticized it for being insufficiently liberal. The Gaullist and Socialist parties experienced internal divisions over the issue of unity, which grew worse over time.
Notably, despite Francois Bayrou’s strong performance in the 2007 elections, this centrist consensus—which was robust in the second half of the 1980s and the 1990s before becoming frail—did not result in the empowerment of the centrist parties prior to President Macron’s inauguration. This can be attributed to a number of factors that would require a lengthy explanation, some of which are related to the liberal movement’s limited appeal to notables and some middle-class groups, the unpopularity of its symbols, and other factors that we will discuss later.
The failure of the governments that came before Macron to address the issues of unemployment, immigration, security, and class, ethnic, and sectarian tensions, as well as the elites’ inability to persuade the poor and middle classes that they are aware of the deterioration of the situation of people with limited social income and thinning social fabric resulted in a gradual rise in the proportion of extremist forces that vehemently reject the tenets of the centrist consensus.
We concur with Philippe Renault that Emmanuel Macron’s election to the presidency cannot be fully explained by the debacle of the traditional ruling parties or the severity of the French crisis. Factors that proved decisive were the deep disagreements between the ruling parties (the Gaullists and the Socialists) on identity and the European project. These divisions were made more pronounced with these parties adopting a method for choosing their candidates, which resulted in the appointment of candidates who represented (some) party extremists. The settling of scores between the Republican Right’s poles resulted in the revelation of their party’s candidate’s financial corruption. Last but not least, the center-right and center-left were able to align behind Macron because the leaders of these currents recognized that the failure of the two major parties to select their candidates provided a wealth of opportunity and room to attract moderate voters.
Some argue that if politicians can set aside their personal objectives, unifying the ranks of the center appears to be a simple process. The center-right and center-left share many beliefs, including a commitment to the market economy, the welfare state, and the European project. This debate, however, is not grounded in reality. Dr. Renault claims that there are significant differences between the center’s constituent parts that have long complicated governance. The center’s base consists of members of the middle classes who benefit from globalization, as well as residents of major cities, notables from regions, and their respective networks. In terms of personal rights and identity preservation, the center-right is more conservative than the center-left. The center-right also favors stability, which means it places an emphasis on maintaining class privileges and long-term employment contracts, and the majority of its supporters invest in real estate (land, apartments, and buildings), whereas the center-left (the direction taken by President Macron) believes in and favors a culture of invention, scientific research, and investment in manufacturing and information technology, battles all forms of rent, including class privileges and pensioners, and does not support long-term employment contracts. When the center-left took office, its tax policy made a clear and unambiguous distinction between the owners of projects and the owners of the rent, favoring the latter.
Politically, President Macron is aware that, on the one hand, the majority of the French people do not support his ambitious program to restructure the French economy and change the rules of the game (we are not currently concerned with an objective assessment of its content). He, on the other hand, understood that reforming France’s financial situation necessitates limiting many entities, and so he supports strengthening the central authority at the expense of the localities (perhaps this explains why he eliminated a tax that was an important source of revenue for localities) and intermediate entities such as trade unions, as well as strengthening the executive authority at the expense of the legislative one. And in many instances, he preferred legislative procedures that let legislation be approved without having to present it to parliament.
On the other hand, we find that the center-right’s recognition of the center’s weakness drives it to support proportional-list elections, so that the traditional ruling parties cannot obtain a parliamentary majority and are compelled to form an alliance with it. It is aware that the program of the center-left requires the modification of the social contract and the forced alteration of the customs and cultures of numerous groups in France and is, therefore, less enthusiastic about it. This is supported by the research conducted by Luc Rubin and Jerome Fourquet, who found that the number of people who approve of President Macron and his agenda is much smaller than the number of people who voted for him in the first round of the presidential elections, and that most of his supporters consider him to be a relatively harmless figure. Even among the small group of people who agree with his economic policies, there are many who dislike the president personally.
When viewed from a different perspective, it can be said that the Socialist Party has undermined itself due to the insistence of some of its wings, which cling to various revolutionary or state forms of the socialist dream, on poisoning and obstructing President Hollande’s term, and the party’s refraining from defending Hollande’s reasonable harvest. All of this compelled the party’s moderates to defect. The majority of them backed President Macron, and some are still working to find a way to take back control of the party or start a new one. In the 2017 elections, the party was trapped between electing Macron, who appeals to the moderates, and Melenchon, who appeals to the extremists. In the 2022 elections, the Greens were also caught between the pincers’ jaws, and the party’s selection of a very poor candidate compounded the issue and caused the party to completely disintegrate.
The Gaullist party resisted for a longer period of time. Even though its candidate in the 2017 presidential elections received less than 20 percent of the popular vote due to financial scandals, this was the first time since 1974 that this had happened. Therefore, President Macron made it a top priority upon taking office to weaken this party by appointing several of its leaders to positions of power within his administration, including former Prime Ministers Edouard Philippe and Jean Castex, as well as former Ministers of Finance Bruno Le Maire and Gérald Darmanin. He adopted some measures that pleased the party’s supporters and some that infuriated them.
The yellow vest uprising was crucial in getting many Gaullist right-wing voters to support the president as the most crucial and possibly the last line of defense against anarchy. Macron’s management of the Covid-19 pandemic was well-received by a variety of sectors, but deteriorated France’s finances. His party failed to establish a presence in the localities, many of which remained strongholds of the Socialists and the Gaullists, and he was unable to persuade the majority of the French that he understood them and to restore their faith in public work. Many people were unconvinced by Macron’s handling of sovereign issues like defense, security, foreign policy, and justice.
More to come…