Solid institutions, but rising social tensions
France enjoys solid institutions of governance, and under the Fifth Republic has benefited from the most stable, consensual and efficient period of the past 200 years. Yet the country has struggled to effectively address the challenges associated with Europeanization and globalization. The helplessness of the previous conservative and socialist governments faced with the deep economic crisis has contributed to the rise of radical populist parties on the left (La France Insoumise) and the right (National Rally), and a deep distrust between large segments of the population and the political class. The 2017 presidential election failed to remedy this situation, as the upsurge of the Yellow Vest movement (Gilets jaunes) showed particularly between November 2018 and June 2019. The social tensions are still acute and ready to unfold.
Traditional parties in disarray; extreme right recovering after defeat
Politically, aside from the unexpected landslide victory of a candidate who had no party support, one of the most striking consequences of the 2017 election has been the dramatic fragmentation of the traditional parties of government. The Socialist party of former President François Hollande is in pieces, lacking either a viable program or viable leadership. In October 2018, the left wing seceded, and the leaders of each the various factions have either been defeated or have retired. After the collapse of their candidate in the presidential election, the Conservatives (Les Républicains) chose a young new leader (Laurent Wauquiez) who was later forced to resign in June 2019 after the failure of his strategy at the European elections. The leftist opposition is represented by La France Insoumise, an unreliable party built around and for its leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The extreme-right party, now renamed the National Rally (Rassemblement National, RN), has been weakened by Marine Le Pen’s defeat in the presidential elections. Key members have seceded, and the group is facing a fraud scandal, but remains the main opposition party in spite of its minimal parliamentary representation. The RN emerged as the frontrunner in the 2019 European elections, nosing ahead of Macrons’ movement with a 1% vote. La République en Marche (REM) holds an overwhelming majority in parliament, but remains a creature of the president, with no real program; moreover, it has so far proven unable to transform itself into a real party of government (i.e., a party that could mediate between the president and the electorate). The whole party system is in deep crisis, and is unable to channel either support for or opposition to the government. This failure has been highlighted by the emergence of the Yellow Vest movement, an uprising expressing the fears, distrust and rebellion of the lower middle class. Once again, unregulated protest and violence has been the preferred mode of action rather than use of institutionalized instruments of mediation such as trade unions or political parties. The movement had no leader, no program, no organization and has failed due to exhaustion; however, the rebellion remains alive and difficult to tame, as there are no clear claims beyond rejection of the “system.”
Forceful pursuit of ambitious reform program; political opposition remains weak
In terms of policy, Macron and his majority in theory have a free hand to implement the president’s ambitious program, proposed in 2017. Macron has taken full advantage of the Fifth Republic’s institutions. He has proceeded forcefully and actively, and has begun to realize reforms on all fronts, including labor law, company law, school and university systems, fiscal policies, healthcare, anti-poverty programs and transportation. However, executive efficiency and parliamentary submission have proven unable to win broader support within the population, or to bypass social opposition. The foreseen constitutional reform has been indefinitely postponed. The proposed reform of the pension system, which by merging all 42 present regimes into one would be the system’s most radical reform ever, has yet to be discussed, negotiated and passed in parliament. It remains to be seen if Macron will succeed in these areas. The political opposition is too weak to present any real obstacle to the president’s policy agenda, and Macron has to date been able to overcome mass mobilization against his policies by the trade unions, which have traditionally been effective in blocking unpopular reforms. He has taken advantage of his determination and legitimacy to foster change, while also exploiting the deep crisis in the trade unions, which are divided and out of touch with the real world. However, the diffuse hostility of public opinion is proving a more difficult obstacle to overcome. Even the government’s successes on many fronts (for instance in terms of growth, unemployment and sectoral reforms) have failed to improve the public’s pessimistic and skeptical mood.
Lack of intermediary
bodies; primary challenge is public protest
bodies; primary challenge is public protest
Ironically, Macron is beginning to suffer from the reverse side of the phenomenon which helped to put him in power. The lack, or the extreme weakness, of intermediary bodies capable of mediating and securing agreements is a preoccupying factor. The political landscape is fragmented and the only real opposition is embodied by two irresponsible political parties. Meanwhile, organized interest groups and trade unions are currently incapable of channeling protest. Consequently, the extreme centralization of power in the Fifth Republic, boosted by Macron’s “vertical” top-down method of governance, and his contempt for parties and organized interests is blatant. The president has had to face unorganized but violent popular riots with the Yellow Vest movement starting in November 2018, which has proved to be the first serious challenge to his governance approach (attacked as being arrogant, elitist and dismissive of ordinary people) and policies (portrayed as taking from the poor to give to the rich). He answered with a classic public-expenditure program (€17 billion) boosting incomes within the lower and middle popular classes, as well as a more original “National Debate” initiative involving two million citizens in local public debates and online conversations. To some extent, this seemed to signal a change in Macron’s governing methods. However, it remains to be seen whether this will really lead to a more deliberative practice of policymaking, or prove no more than a mechanism designed to bleed off political pressure.
Inability to find stable, cohesive direction
While this kind of protest is not entirely new in France, it is a powerful indicator of the inability of the country to find a stable and cohesive direction, and to combine assertiveness and dialogue. The difficulties are further exacerbated by a challenging environment. The Brexit issue, U.S. President Trump’s opposition to multilateralism, and the weakness of the German government are impediments to the ambitious pro-European and multilateral set of proposals put forward by Macron. His disruptive style and aggressive approach to domestic and international issues has had positive outcomes, but has increasingly encountered resistance from other European member states.