Macron must cede some power if he is to save French democracy

Macron must cede some power if he is to save French democracy

How Macron will see out the next four years amid the current levels of public anger is a real concern (File/AFP)
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In 1958, Charles de Gaulle heaved himself out of retirement to bring France’s fractured politics under control. With it, the French people, who overwhelmingly voted for his constitutional changes, ushered in the markedly presidential Fifth Republic.

This system, often compared to a monarchy due to the overarching powers it bestows upon the president, has served France well for the best part of 65 years. However, it is becoming increasingly controversial for its capacity to facilitate unilateral government. For example, following months of protests and public anger, the constitution’s role in facilitating President Emmanuel Macron’s controversial pension reforms have put it under the spotlight, as protesters chant “Down with the Fifth Republic.”

Macron lost the sheen of a fresh-faced reformer a year into his first term. Pursuing systemic public spending reforms that rocked the very tenets of the French state, his quest was not aided by his swift adoption of the autocratic tendencies of his Bourbon predecessors. While his first term was characterized by the grueling regular marches of the Yellow Vest movement, it seems his second will bear the scars of his top-down pension system overhaul.

Having first palmed off the task of passing the difficult reforms to his prime minister, the president — almost oblivious to the public anger and parliamentary opposition — then proceeded to force through his proposal to raise the retirement age with the implementation of Article 49.3, a handy constitutional facility arming the presidency with the ability to avoid the governmental paralysis and chaos of the Fourth Republic. Its use in these circumstances, however, has proved too much for the French public who, after months characterized by rolling strikes, fuel shortages and uncollected rubbish heaps, are not simply at odds with the president, but rather with a presidential system that overly centralizes power at the expense of France’s fiercely democratic republican principles.

Economic stagnation saw the growth of the far right and, with it, the dwindling popularity of France’s presidents

Zaid M. Belbagi

Up until 1958, French presidents were unrecognizable from today’s Jupiterian figures. Elected by some 80,000 officials, they oversaw a system that was plagued by a lack of political consensus, a weak executive and the constant forming and falling of governments. Lacking a parliamentary majority, prime ministers struggled to pursue reforms, leading to a state of continued political malaise, which was not aided by the experience of two world wars, Nazi occupation and the Great Depression.

Matters came to a head in 1958, when the Algerian War of Independence took on the dimension of a civil war and France faced the real prospect of a military coup. The inability of parliament to choose a government, coupled with popular discontent, spurred De Gaulle to call for the suspension of government and a new constitutional system built on universal suffrage and a strong president. Presidents were thus given executive powers to rule the country in consultation with a prime minister whom, not entirely dissimilarly to the French kings of old, they would appoint directly.

What delayed any criticism of this model were the “Thirty Glorious Years,” during which time French industry and the economy grew exponentially, putting the malaise of the wartime years to bed. This prosperity encouraged a system under which the French parted with a significant portion of their income, but in return forced the state to support generous public spending.

Economic stagnation thereafter, however, saw the growth of the far right and, with it, the dwindling popularity of France’s presidents, from Jacques Chirac to Macron. The public’s disillusion with this system was initially targeted at individual presidents, but is now aimed at a system that is seen to empower the empowered and is removed from any notions of equality, which French citizens hold dear. This is no more pertinent than in the powers enshrined by the constitution, which are increasingly outdated.

The current furor is a clear illustration of the shortcomings of a system in which parliament can often seem irrelevant

Zaid M. Belbagi

Amid the tumult of the late 1950s, De Gaulle and his Cabinet were granted six months to rule by decree. Article 49.3 came to guarantee this autocratic facility as required. While it is unlikely that De Gaulle envisaged its regular use, France’s current Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has employed it 11 times over the last 10 months.

The current furor surrounding the raising of the retirement age is a clear illustration of the shortcomings of a system in which parliament can often seem irrelevant. The lowest unemployment rate in decades and France’s growing role as a financial services hub have done little to temper public anger at a system that modern French citizens see as overly centralized and perpetuating a technocratic elite with a “born-to-rule” political philosophy, which they see as being embodied by Macron.

President Macron’s political isolation led to his electoral struggles last summer, which saw gains for the extreme left and right. Even then, before his foray into pension reform, the far left called for a “Sixth Republic” to neuter the powers of what its leader, Jean-Luc Melenchon, has described as the “monarch president.” As Macron continues to rely upon the unpopular facets of the hyper-presidential system, he is empowering populist extremists who may very well inherit the same authoritarian powers should the president continue to founder.

France’s pension reforms will be a reality from September. However, how Macron will see out the next four years amid such levels of public anger is a real concern. Forever chasing the big idea and seeking to tackle controversial political issues in the hope of enshrining his political legacy, the most rewarding path open to Macron is to seek a more inclusive political system in the time he has left in office. Fathering a new constitution — and thereby a new republic — is the greatest career achievement he can hope for; the only question is whether he will surrender some power to save French democracy.

  • Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator and an adviser to private clients between London and the GCC. Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid
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