After having given themselves and the rest of us a fright, France’s voters have, by a worryingly small margin, stepped back from the brink. Some polls indicated a possible victory for the two extremists, Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, either of whom would have meant disaster for France. Instead, the next President will almost certainly be the youthful centrist, Emmanuel Macron, the nearest to a viable establishment candidate. Though this is certainly a far lesser evil, it is evident that the political system of Europe’s oldest large democracy has gone spectacularly wrong. The minimum requirement of a functioning democracy is that a manageable range of sensible choices is put before the electorate, and that if not a consensus, at least a general acceptance of the result ensues. But the French have had to choose between four ‘major’ candidates (and seven others), all of them to some extent outsiders, none the first choice of even a quarter of the voters, and all proposing policies likely to provoke serious popular opposition.
This near disaster is the sour fruit of deep seated problems. Some of these are familiar. The public sector is big and expensive, imposing a huge tax burden on business. The state is highly regulatory, especially in the labour market. Whatever the benefits (for example the successful fostering of certain industries), the costs are heavy, and they include chronically high unemployment and relatively low growth. France also has increasing difficulty in dealing with its ethnic minority population, a difficulty worsened by severe unemployment and aggravated by Republican secularism. Consequently, very many people have a depressing sense of crisis and national decline. Every bookshop in France is stacked with diagnoses of ‘collapsing France’. Arguably the French tend to wallow in pessimism as a way of girding themselves up for change. But as this election has shown, while most people are convinced that ‘something must be done’, there is absolutely no consensus about what.
A political system is supposed, however imperfectly, to address such problems. But for years now — at least since the presidency of Jacques Chirac (elected 1995) if not since François Mitterrand (elected 1981) – politics has been marked by failure, stagnation and growing apathy. The most recent presidents, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, inspired not only disappointment but contempt. General disillusion was first shown in this year’s primary elections, in which all the established candidates were thrown out. On Sunday, the two parties that have governed alternately for more than half a century were utterly humiliated: combined they received only a quarter of the vote.
What has gone wrong? It may seem paradoxical that the most powerful presidential office in the democratic world has produced such paralysis. But there is no paradox: the problem is in the office itself. The 5th Republic is a quasi-Bonapartist system. Bonapartism has been summed up as ‘active authority and passive democracy’, in which the voters acclaimed a charismatic national leader. After the catastrophic defeat of Napoleon III in 1870, a Republic was created to prevent such ‘Caesarism’ by giving predominance to parliament. But French conservatives continued to nurse visions of ‘strong’ government under a charismatic royal or military leader, to end what they saw (sometimes rightly) as the corruption, factionalism and instability of parliamentary government. The great French historian Raoul Girardet identified two political yearnings deeply embedded in French political imagination: for unity, and for a providential saviour. The disaster of 1940 was duly blamed on disunity, and for a time Marshal Pétain assumed the role of saviour. The Algerian crisis of 1958-62 seemed to repeat the lesson, and this time the saviour was the far worthier figure of General de Gaulle. He had long wanted to create a more authoritative system of government with a powerful national leader ‘above party’: and now he did.
The 5th Republic created what the draughtsman of its constitution called a ‘republican monarchy’. Its powers far exceed those of a British prime minister or an American president, and, crucially, without their checks and balances. The accountability of the executive to parliament is severely restricted. The president is literally irresponsible: there is no mechanism for removing him. He – they have all been men – controls government business and has vast personal powers of appointment. He can dismiss the government, dissolve parliament and call referendums. In practice, his role goes beyond even that laid down in the constitution, for example he effectively controls foreign and defence policy. National political life revolves round the presidency, and the rest of the system has withered.
So why the paralysis? In a nutshell, because the huge powers of the president rarely produce effective action. The burden has proved beyond any normal politician, even beyond de Gaulle, who left office ignominiously. The president must not merely lead a party and government. He must also embody national unity, determine what de Gaulle called ‘the destiny’ of France, and symbolise the dignity of the nation both to itself and to the world (here Sarkozy and Hollande fell sadly short). As soon as he is elected, he becomes the principal target of opposition and discontent, obsessed with his ratings and prospects for re-election. The very eminence of the presidency means isolation within the political bubble of the Elysée, and there has long been a pattern of erratic policy decisions being followed by U-turns in the face of popular uproar. It is too much to expect a national saviour to appear every five years.
A Macron or Le Pen Presidency will moreover be a perversion of de Gaulle’s ‘republican monarchy’, which was assumed to be backed by popular opinion and supported by a strong and docile party in parliament. Both candidates are the positive choice of less than a quarter of voters. They inspire among the other three-quarters mistrust and scepticism in the case of Macron, and fear and loathing in the case of Le Pen. If a President Le Pen tried to use the vast presidential prerogative to force through her programme (cracking down on minorities, deporting undesirables, or triggering a Frexit) she would meet resistance not only in parliament but, more seriously, in the streets. Fortunately, this is a vanishingly small probability.
What about President Macron, and his rather vague plans for liberalising the economy, unifying the nation, and galvanising the increasingly unpopular EU? Despite the euphoria that would surround his victory – mainly because he is not Marine Le Pen – he is unlikely to win a majority in the parliamentary elections in June. Might this most pro-establishment of rebels use his monarchical powers to redirect ‘the destiny of France’ as its latest national saviour? The precedents are not encouraging. He risks becoming the prisoner of the established parties, who now have time to regroup. He promised on Sunday evening to turn ‘a new page in our political life’. He may instead turn out to be merely the rear guard of the status quo.
Robert Tombs is an historian of France, and professor of French history at St John’s College, Cambridge.