Whatever the outcome of the French presidential election – and President Macron will likely be re-elected – I fear it will mark 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 inhabitants are quite proud of it. But life in a laboratory is not comfortable.
The familiar political benchmarks upon which democratic systems depend have disappeared. It is astonishing that the candidates of what were until recently the two ruling parties of modern France, the Socialists and (under various names) the Gaullists, have been reduced to insignificance, their presidential candidates obtaining less by 10%. Yet the former French president was a socialist, Francois Hollande, and Gaullist Francois Fillon would likely have beaten Macron in 2017 if he hadn’t been caught up in a corruption scandal. Today, these political pillars of the Fifth Republic system, the parties that provided essential popular representation, have almost completely disintegrated. This election could be their final blow.
Now France is faced only with alternatives that repel or worry a large part of its people: Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. Even in the last elections, Macron was the first choice of only a quarter of voters. So he seemed an unimpeachable centrist. Now he is viewed with visceral aversion by a remarkable array of people. Le Pen represents a far-right tradition that until recently most voters considered inadmissible: reactionary, racist and undemocratic. But it has increased its appeal, especially among young people.
Whoever becomes the next president will have to deal with a disgruntled and alienated country, and it is unclear to what extent effective government may be possible. A President Le Pen would mean violence in the streets and a political and economic crisis. Would she be able to form a credible government? Many who vote for her are so unhappy they are willing to risk tearing down the house. But if re-elected, Macron could also face popular rebellion and the slim prospect of a parliamentary majority to back him.
France’s predicament is an extreme form of the political disease that plagues the democratic world: rejection of conventional politics, reduced party loyalty and membership, low turnout in elections, unpredictable and unstable voting choices . It has given politicians who oppose “mainstream politics” – or claim they were – an opportunity in several countries.
They are traditionally referred to as “populists”. Le Pen is of course one of them. Just like his far-left counterpart, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. But Macron himself was the arch-populist, campaigning in 2017 against conventional politics, rejecting existing parties and creating his own movement out of civil society bodies and non-politicians. This respectable bourgeois populism carries a label: “technopopulism”. He claims the legitimacy of a superior capacity to manage the system, in the case of Macron as the potential leader of a more powerful technocratic EU. His victory sounded the death knell of the old party system.
Is it important? Yes, if there is nothing to replace it which can fulfill the minimum functions of democratic parties: to bring together majorities, or at least large coherent minorities, to present (and get rid of) political leaders, to formulate programs and to try to carry them out if they are elected, to give people a way to participate and be represented, and to maintain a sense of legitimacy. No system does it perfectly; indeed, looking around the world, we can see how poorly many democracies function, including the most established ones. But in a system wedged 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 afterwards. The current French constitution of 1958, which its drafter rightly called a “republican monarchy”, was adopted to allow Charles de Gaulle to subdue the incipient civil war against Algeria and to establish a powerful and even authoritarian government like the Fifth Republic.
It is the last variant of the regular fluctuations between authority and democracy that France has known since the revolution of 1789. 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), criticized as impotent and chaotic. De Gaulle’s system has been plausibly characterized as 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 criticized in principle and has regularly given rise to problems. A cynic might say that it is the principles that are France’s problem. Unlike Britain – which, Disraeli said, was ruled not by principles but by a parliament – the French regularly chose, or were forced to, try to design perfect systems. It was there, thought Edmund Burke, the original sin of the Revolution, the “fairyland of philosophy”. De Gaulle’s republic deliberately weakened political parties and parliament by concentrating power in the presidency.
After 64 years, he has done rather too well. Parties are largely fan clubs of individuals, based on clientelism and personal ties. Le Pen’s party, now called the National Rally, is a 50-year-old family business. Macron launched his own from scratch – La République en Marche (now simply EM! Complete with an exclamation point). But de Gaulle, the godfather of the system, also had his docile party.
The primary objective of the party is to install a president, practically irremovable, and whose powers of government and clientelism are immense. As a skeptical commentator, Jean-François Revel, wrote a few years ago, it was an instrument so open to abuse that it was “criminal to put it even in the hands of a saint”. It was “absolutism”, but “inefficient absolutism”. And indeed, Macron’s authoritarian plans for sweeping reform had to be watered down or scrapped after the yellow vest revolt and the workers’ strike. But Macron stayed. And it is likely to remain so. for another term. To do what ?
The last two parties in the running will be Macron’s EM! and RN de Le Pen. Their changing and abbreviated titles show how little they exist outside of their rulers. The large mass parties that once covered French political life have almost disappeared. Yet they possessed not only vast organizations, but entire cultures: there was a “left people” with its sociability, its rituals and even its tastes (the left, according to a survey, preferred Camembert).
But it’s the far right that’s still alive and kicking. It also has its historical cultural core: a mixture of traditional Catholic, formerly royalist patriotism; French nationalism, resisting the flamboyant Europeanism of Macron; and suspicion towards immigrants. It has attracted many former Communists, and now many young voters, embittered by poor job prospects and a seemingly indifferent system.
It is precisely this right-wing tradition – long embodied by Jean-Marie Le Pen and tainted with anti-Semitism, anti-republicanism, nostalgia for French Algeria and a persistent association with Pétainism – that has made Le Pen father and daughter ineligible. Most French citizens, whether socialists or Gaullists, would in no way vote “Lepenist”.
This political conundrum – a hard-core tradition that has kept Lepenism alive despite all setbacks, but at the same time rendered it ineligible – could crumble as the historical burden of the 1940s and 1950s is ignored by new generations. . I still think the weight of history means that Le Pen will be beaten even by Macron. But more by a landslide.
Then there will likely be some sort of political turmoil that could spawn new alliances and perhaps more short-lived parties. But the wish expressed by generations of French politicians since the beginning of the 19th century that France could develop a stable system of respectable moderate parties like the American and the British which could offer credible alternatives seems less likely than ever, in particular because the Anglo-Saxon model is now irrelevant.
So whoever the next president is is likely to be a distant and unpopular incumbent, unable to unite the country, unable to carry out an agenda, but firmly ensconced in the Elysée. Whether Macron or Le Pen, the dangerous instrument will not be in the hands of a saint.
Robert Tombs is Emeritus Professor of French History at the University of Cambridge.