Stuck between Macron and Le Pen, France’s political system is disintegrating

Whatever the outcome of France’s presidential vote – and President Macron will probably be reelected – I fear it marks another stage in the dissolution of a political system. Of course, this could be beneficial: we are supposed to welcome change and renewal. It will certainly be interesting: France has often been a political laboratory for Europe, and its people are quite proud of this. But life in a laboratory is not comfortable.

The familiar political landmarks that democratic systems depend on have gone. It is astonishing that the candidates of what were until recently modern France’s two ruling parties, the Socialists and (under a variety of names) the Gaullists, have been reduced to insignificance, with their presidential candidates polling at under 10 per cent. Yet France’s previous president was a Socialist, François Hollande, and the Gaullist François Fillon would probably have beaten Macron in 2017 had he not been caught up in a corruption scandal. Now these political pillars of the Fifth Republic system, parties that provided essential popular representation, have almost completely disintegrated. This election could be their coup de grace.

Now France is faced solely with alternatives that repel or alarm a large part of its people: Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. Even at the last election, Macron was the first choice of only a quarter of the electorate. Then he seemed an unobjectionable centrist. Now he is regarded with visceral dislike by a remarkable range of people. Le Pen represents a far-Right tradition that until recently most voters considered beyond the pale: reactionary, racist, and undemocratic. But it has increased its appeal, especially among the young.

Whoever becomes the next president will face a discontented and alienated country, and it is unclear how effective government can be possible. A President Le Pen would mean violence in the streets and political and economic crisis. Would she be capable of forming a credible government? Many of those voting for her are so discontented that they are willing to risk pulling the house down. But if he is re-elected Macron might also be faced with popular rebellion, and with a slim prospect of a parliamentary majority to support him.

France’s predicament is an extreme form of the political malady rife across the democratic world: rejection of conventional politics, reduced party loyalty and membership, low turnout in elections, unpredictable and volatile voting choices. This has given politicians standing in opposition to “mainstream politics” – or claiming that they were – an opportunity in several countries.

They are conventionally dismissed as “populists”. Le Pen of course is one of these. So is her far-Left equivalent, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. But Macron himself was the arch-populist, campaigning in 2017 against conventional politics, rejecting existing parties and creating his own movement drawn from civil society bodies and non-politicians. This respectable bourgeois populism has a label: “technopopulism”. It claims legitimacy from a superior ability to manage the system, in Macron’s case as would-be leader of a more powerful technocratic EU. His victory sounded the death knell of the old party system.

Does this matter? Yes, if nothing replaces it which can perform the minimum functions of democratic parties: to assemble majorities, or at least large coherent minorities, to bring forward (and get rid of) political leaders, to formulate programmes and try to carry them out if elected, to give people a means of participating and being represented, and to maintain a sense of legitimacy. No system does this perfectly; indeed, looking round the world we can see how poorly many democracies are working, including the most established. But in a system stuck between Macron and Le Pen, the problem is acute.

Does history explain this? Clearly yes. Political systems are invariably created in times of crisis, and are very difficult to change thereafter. France’s present 1958 constitution, which its drafter aptly called a “republican monarchy”, was adopted to enable Charles de Gaulle to master the incipient civil war over Algeria, and to establish a powerful and even authoritarian government as the Fifth Republic.

This was the latest variant of the regular fluctuations between authority and democracy that France has experienced since the 1789 revolution. The most recent had been the ultra-reactionary Vichy regime of Marshal Pétain (1940-44), followed by the ultra-parliamentary system of the Fourth Republic (1946-58), criticised as impotent and chaotic. De Gaulle’s system has been plausibly called Bonapartist, which is an attempt to combine both authority and democracy – “active authority, passive democracy”, as one historian has defined it.

The Fifth Republic is paradoxical. It has been the most widely accepted and arguably the most successful of the 15 constitutional systems France has had since 1789. Yet it has always been criticised in principle, and has regularly given rise to problems. A cynic might say that it is principles that are France’s problem. Unlike Britain – which, said Disraeli, was not governed by principles but by parliament – the French have regularly chosen, or been forced, to try to design perfect systems. This, Edmund Burke thought, was the original sin of the Revolution, the “fairy land of philosophy”. De Gaulle’s republic deliberately weakened political parties and parliament by concentrating power in the presidency.

After 64 years it has succeeded rather too well. Parties are largely the supporters’ clubs of individuals, based on patronage and personal ties. Le Pen’s party, now called the Rassemblement National, is a 50-year-old family business. Macron started his own from scratch – La République en Marche (now simply EM! complete with exclamation mark). But then de Gaulle, the godfather of the system, also had his own tame party.

The overriding aim of the party is to install a president, who is practically irremovable, and whose powers of government and patronage are immense. As a sceptical commentator, Jean-François Revel, wrote some years ago, this was an instrument so open to abuse that it was “criminal to put it even into the hands of a saint”. It was “absolutism”, but “ineffective absolutism”. And indeed Macron’s high-handed plans for sweeping reform had to be watered down or dropped after the gilets jaunes revolted and workers came out on strike. But Macron remained. And is likely to remain for another term. To do what?

The last two parties standing will be Macron’s EM! and Le Pen’s RN. Their changing and abbreviated titles show how little they exist apart from their leaders. The great mass parties that once bestrode French political life have almost vanished. Yet they possessed not only vast organisations, but whole cultures: there was a “peuple de gauche” with its own sociability, rituals and even tastes (the Left, one survey showed, preferred Camembert).

But it is the far Right that is still alive and kicking. It too has its historic cultural core: a mixture of traditional Catholic patriotism, once royalist; of French nationalism, resistant to Macron’s flamboyant Europeanism; and of suspicion of immigrants. This attracted many former Communists, and now many young voters, embittered by poor job prospects and a system that seems unheeding.

It is precisely this Right-wing tradition – long embodied by Jean-Marie Le Pen and tainted by anti-Semitism, anti-republicanism, Algérie Française nostalgia, and a lingering association with Pétainism – which made Le Pen father and daughter unelectable. Most French citizens, whether Socialist or Gaullist, would under no circumstances vote “lepeniste”.

This political conundrum – a hard-core tradition that kept lepenism going despite all the reverses, but which at the same time made it unelectable – may be unravelling as the historical burden of the 1940s and 1950s is shrugged off by new generations. I still think that the weight of history means that Le Pen will be beaten even by Macron. But no longer by a landslide.  

Then there is likely to be some sort of political turmoil that may bring new alliances and perhaps more ephemeral parties into existence. But the wish expressed by generations of French politicians since the early 19th century that France might develop a stable system of respectable moderate parties like the American and the British that could offer credible alternatives seems less than ever likely, not least because the Anglo-Saxon model is now uninspiring.

So whoever becomes the next President, the likelihood is of a remote and unpopular incumbent, unable to unite the country, unable to carry out a programme, but solidly ensconced in the Elysée Palace. Whether Macron or Le Pen, the dangerous instrument will not be in the hands of a saint.  


Robert Tombs is professor emeritus of French history at the University of Cambridge

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