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L’état, c’est Macron

Image via El Pais

Since January, France has been engulfed in mass strikes. President Emmanuel Macron controversially proposed to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 and increase the minimum years of contributions for workers to receive a full pension from 42 to 43. Hundreds of thousands of teachers, hospital workers, oil workers, trash collectors, and transport workers have poured onto the streets of France in protest. The government’s decision to use Article 49.3 to push Macron’s proposal through without a vote in Parliament only intensified public outcry. 56 percent of the country supports the strikes, which is unsurprising because Macron’s reforms are deeply unpopular—70 percent of poll respondents indicated that they were dissatisfied with the president. However, the strikes—and the public’s support for them—are not solely a reaction against pension overhaul and Macron’s bypass of Parliament. Rather, they are best understood as part of a more general reaction against the French political elite and the failures of France’s political decision making process.

Modern France emerged out of a revolution, which led to the collapse of the monarchy and the birth of the French Republic in 1792. The revolution gave rise to France’s national motto of liberté, égalité, fraternité. Today, even the French citizens who are not involved in the strikes—and who may actually be burdened by them—sympathize with the protesters. Labor sociology professor Jean-Pierre Durand explains that “the French spirit, if there is one, is one of skepticism”; many people automatically question attempts at reform. 

The French strike much more frequently than people in other European countries. According to the SNCF—France’s state-owned railway system—France had a rail strike every year between 1947 and 2019. A Hans Boeckler Foundation study found that, among OECD countries, France lost the most working days per 1000 employees between 2008 and 2017. However, it would be a mistake to simply attribute the pattern of strikes to an innate French disposition to protest. Macron must recognize that France’s constant strikes reveal major structural problems in its political institutions. This discontent will not go away by itself.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Macron’s reform, his arguably undemocratic move to bypass Parliament and elicit the ire of the French population will pose major problems for French governance moving forward. Despite surviving two no-confidence motions (one filed from the centrist Liot party and the other from the extreme-right National Rally), Macron has damaged his relationship with potential allies and negotiating partners. As his Renaissance party does not have a majority in the National Assembly, Macron had to rely on the conservative Republicans for support in combating Liot’s no-confidence motion, which only failed by nine votes. Nineteen out of 42 Republicans backed the no-confidence vote, signaling tensions between Renaissance and the Republicans, who have the potential to impede important reform in the future. The friction in the government will only further erode citizens’ trust in their politicians. 

France has a major problem with distrust in government. Power is highly centralized, with a remarkably powerful president and monarchy. Its small class of political elite has been educated at the same exclusive institutions. French people have drawn parallels between the power of the president today and the monarchy overthrown in the French Revolution. 

France’s strong presidential powers were created in response to the shortcomings—specifically the weakness and lack of leadership—of the Third (1870-1940) and Fourth (1946-1958) Republics, which were themselves established to avoid the autocratic regimes of Napoleon III (1851-1870) and Marshal Pétain (1940-1944). France’s most celebrated president and founder of the Fifth Republic, General Charles de Gaulle, aimed to create a stable and efficient political system by giving the president considerable power. 

As a result of de Gaulle’s  constitutional changes in 1958, the French president currently wields a disproportionate amount of power compared to other European countries: He (all presidents thus far have been men) can dissolve Parliament, call for new elections and referendums, and serve as commander-in-chief. Moreover, he appoints the prime minister as well as the holders of most other national ministries and departments. Essentially, the president runs the government with the prime minister and government offices subordinate to him. He often makes policy decisions without input from the ministries and public. For example, Macron’s government decreased the speed limit on roads from 90 to 80 kilometers per hour without any warning, which caused particular outrage among citizens living in rural areas. 

As French politics are “president-centric,” the political process has become increasingly technocratic and undemocratic with diminishing accountability. Many political scientists consider France to have an extremely weak legislative branch relative to other democracies. Parliament only has limited power to amend legislation and cannot dismiss or impeach the president, except in very limited circumstances, for example when the president triggers Article 49.3. 

The article was adopted under the constitution of the Fifth Republic in 1958 to settle deadlocks and crises, and it has been triggered 87 times since. During Macron’s first term, from 2017 to 2022, this “nuclear option” was used just once, but it has already been used 11 times since the start of his second term in 2022, when his party lost its absolute majority in Parliament. Critics have contended that the ability of the government to bypass the legislature has been harmful to French democracy and constructive political discourse. The majority of French people now oppose Article 49.3.

The French Constitution’s centralization of presidential power has allowed Macron to prioritize his policy goals over democratic practices and decentralization. This top-down approach has led to French people having to take to the streets to make their voices heard—just as they were compelled to do in the Yellow Vests protests. In 2018, Yellow Vests protests originally arose as a response to an increase in fuel prices, but evolved into a massive movement against economic inequality, the out-of-touch elite, and Macron’s “hyper-presidential” attitude. Many French workers face great economic hardship in the face of rising wealth inequality, and their protests were met with indifference and detachment from the government. In fact, Macron did not make a public address for the first several weeks of the 2018 demonstrations. Similarly, he has shown no sign of budging in response to current protests. In March, the left-wing leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon stated that Macron “vit en dehors de toute réalité” (lives outside of all reality). Macron has declined to entertain the idea of holding a referendum or new legislative elections. 

Despite Macron’s resistance, France must overhaul its political system in order to avoid these types of paralyzing demonstrations in the future. Past efforts to do so have been insufficient or even counterproductive. For example, in 2000, France’s reduction of presidential term lengths from seven to five years was ineffective. The president is now overly focused on winning reelection, while the opposition parties are induced to carry out political sabotage. This has made it more difficult for the moderate French parties to work together to counter the rise of the far-right National Rally, which vehemently opposes immigration and the EU. The president’s concentrated power has also discouraged cooperation and coalition formation between parties of different ideologies.. Another limitation on the president’s power is that he cannot run for a third consecutive term, meaning Macron will not be up for re-election in 2027. However, this may have prompted Macron to do anything in his power to push his reform through despite intense public backlash: He may now primarily be concerned with cementing his legacy as the president who transformed France’s economy. 

Going forward, there have been a variety of new proposals to more effectively eliminate some of the powers of the president. For example, France could decentralize presidential power by lending more authority to France’s municipal governments. It could change the timing of its legislative elections: Instead of voting for the National Assembly at the same time as the president, French voters would benefit from being able to assess the president’s tenure and elect new députés through midterm elections

In addition, the government could give more power directly to the people by giving citizens the power to initiate legislation. For example, the Yellow Vests movement called for the establishment of a citizens’ initiative referendum, which would have permitted voters to petition for a referendum without the backing of parliament or the president. 

There have also even been calls from the far-left for the establishment of a Sixth Republic. Mélanchon, contended Macron has pursued an “authoritarian drift,” and that the historically high levels of abstention and the president’s position as a “king” undermine France’s democracy. He proposed rewriting the constitution and radically changing France’s institutions.Such sweeping constitutional changes would entail dramatically reducing the president’s power, effectively giving him more of a ceremonial role while boosting the parliament’s status so it cannot be bypassed by the executive anymore. 

As the strikes persist and talks with unions remain unsuccessful, France must reckon with the shortcomings of its Constitution and government. The pension system may have to undergo reform—but so does the entire political system. Until then, voters’ main outlet to express discontent is protesting.