Struggling with globalization
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), as well as to the deep distrust between large segments of the population and the political class. The Macron presidency has failed so far to remedy this situation in the years since taking power in 2017, as the upsurge of the Yellow Vest movement (Gilets jaunes) between November 2018 and June 2019 strikingly demonstrated.
Acute social tensions; rising levels of distrust
The social tensions are still acute and ready to erupt. The outbreak of the pandemic had twin effects. After an initial period in which the public authorities proved unprepared, management of the pandemic has been rather satisfactory and the economic support programs quite efficient. The initial collapse in growth has been erased, and by the end of 2021, GDP had exceeded 2019 levels, and unemployment rates had declined. The price has been quite high, however. The budget deficit and public debt (now close to 120% of GDP) will require steady and tough policy measures that will be difficult to impose on a suspicious and reluctant population. Indeed, the second effect of the pandemic has been to exacerbate distrust and resistance, in particular among the lower strata of the population.
Old political system has fragmented; increasing activity on far right
In terms of politics, one of the most striking consequences of the 2017 election was the dramatic fragmentation of the traditional parties of government and the radicalization of the political spectrum. The Socialist party is in pieces, lacking both a viable program and appealing leadership, while the more radical left (La France insoumise) can only hope to attract those dreaming of a socialist revolution. Its leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon cannot win the presidential race alone, and the rest of the left is unwilling to collaborate with him. The party has become a leftist populist party. On the right, following the defeat of leader François Fillon, the Les Républicains party has split into a moderate wing leaning toward Macron, and another faction close to the extreme right, in particular on issues such as migration and law and order. However, thanks to a well-run closed primary, the party is recovering under the new leadership of Valérie Pécresse, winner of the internal competition. Following Marine Le Pen’s defeat in the presidential elections of 2017, the extreme-right party, now renamed the National Rally (Rassemblement National, RN), has attempted to adopt a moderate profile more palatable to a still skeptical electorate. This move to the center, in particular on economic and social issues, has not paid off, as an outsider, Éric Zemmour – a journalist and polemist without any party support – has managed to gain about 13%-15% of the electorate’s support with a more radical discourse on identity issues.
Party system in crisis;
not yet dead
not yet dead
Macron’s 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 credible support for or opposition to the government and, unfortunately, it is improbable that the presidential race will clarify the situation. 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 to 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.” The winner of the 2022 presidential race will be faced with a polarized and fragmented party system. This is a characteristic inherited from history, but the situation has deteriorated further in the last decade or so with the decline of ideologies and the rise of social networks.
on all fronts
on all fronts
In terms of policy, Macron and his majority had a free hand to implement the president’s ambitious program during his first term. Macron has taken full advantage of the Fifth Republic’s institutions, at least in theory. 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, passing 300 executive ordinances as well as parliamentary legislation. However, executive efficiency and parliamentary submission have not proven sufficient to win broader popular support, or to bypass the social opposition. The promised constitutional reform has been indefinitely postponed. The proposed pension system reform has been postponed, and is to be carried out after the presidential elections.
Pandemic and climate change dominate
In addition, the pandemic and climate change issues have overwhelmed the political agenda, and added new and demanding problems on various fronts: the budget, the mounting debt, technological problems, the industrial revolution, organization of labor, and of course all the related social issues. 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. The president’s political base remains strong, but represents only one-fourth of the electorate, enough for governing, but not enough for building consensus.
Ironically, Macron suffers 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 at both ends of the political spectrum. 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 had to face unorganized but violent popular riots with the Yellow Vest movement starting in November 2018, which proved to be the first serious challenge to his governance approach (attacked as being arrogant, elitist and dismissive of ordinary people) and policies. Despite his ultimate reelection, these basic issues and problems are still in place, and the distrust of a majority of the population is very acute. This said, any successor would have faced the same difficulty.
Protest rather than credible proposals
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 various oppositional forces whose purpose is not so much to propose credible alternative programs, but rather to voice radical protest. For many, elections have become less an opportunity to choose between alternative proposals than a chance to vote against the person running the country. This happened in 2012 and again in 2017. While Macron ultimately retained his hold on power, many voters clearly treated the ballot the same way in 2022.