Discover more from Trying to Understand the World
Macron is Safe for the Moment
But the future worries me.
My last article on the current situation in France provoked a lot more interest than I expected in views and comments, both here and on the Naked Capitalism site which kindly featured it. So I thought I might do another, concentrating on the things people seem to have difficulties with: notably, how the system works in practice, and what the options are. Here’s a brief factual overview, with some (limited) speculation about what might happen. I’ll cover the factual position at the moment, mechanisms by which Macron’s position could be politically weakened, and in theory undermined, and lastly what might realistically happen both in the short term and up to 2027.
The first thing to understand about the French political system is the distinction between the President and the Government. This is effectively the same distinction as that between the King and his Ministers in the day of Louis XIV. When you read that the government has been defeated, that the Prime Minister has been forced to resign, or whatever, this only applies to one part of the political system: that which revolves around the Parliament. That is why, for example, the government losing a vote of confidence does not impact directly on the President’s position, though it’s obviously politically damaging.
The current situation is that the pensions law (which goes a lot wider than just the retiring age) has passed both the National Assembly (NA) and the Senate. It now goes to Macron himself for promulgation, and is transmitted to the organisations concerned, with a demand that it should be implemented. But we’re not quite at that point yet. Normally, the law would already have been scrutinised in draft form by the Conseil d’État, the independent body of administrative lawyers that looks at all new laws. On this occasion, because the law involves finance, the government has argued (successfully, apparently) that this didn’t need to happen, and that all that was needed was a “note,” which the government has received, but won’t share with anybody. This may be technically correct, but it’s another little example of the messy, almost wantonly provocative, way in which this whole business has been handled.
The body that will be looking at the law now is the Constitutional Council, which is in effect a court that any citizen or organisation can complain to if they think that the law violates the Constitution, or one of a small number of other documents such as Declaration of the Rights of Man, which is itself mentioned in the 1958 Constitution. This has already happened. The Council hasn’t yet issued an opinion, but most experts think that it will probably find that the new law is Constitutional.
Even after that, of course, the law, which is very complex, needs to be translated into decrees and detailed instructions, and it will be years before much of it comes into effect. There is therefore time and space available for lowering the temperature by, for example, delaying or suspending the issue of decrees, or changing the dates for implementation. A sensible government would probably be thinking about doing this now. Unfortunately ….
So that’s where we are legally. Politically, the crisis is far from over. The trades unions are still organising days of action and strikes (the next is tomorrow), and they are still getting lots of support. The official position of the trades unions (who have benefited a lot politically from this episode) is that they want the law withdrawn, and they may be hoping that they can at least force a delay in its implementation until after the next election, when who knows what the position will be? But one reason why the protests are continuing is that they are tapping into a much deeper and wider set of concerns among very large parts of the population. Older French people have experienced forty years now of successive assaults on their living standards and employment rights, and many have had enough. A lot of French people not directly affected by the law, or not worried by it, have nonetheless been shocked and even angered by the way in which the law was pushed through Parliament, without very much discussion, and without a final vote in the NA. So people who have already retired, as well as students, have featured heavily in recent demonstrations, and university buildings have been occupied, and government offices attacked. And of course Macron, who has less political sense than my granddaughter’s stuffed rabbit, seems to be going out of his way to stir up and exacerbate public anger against himself and his policies.
One consequence of this is that the political situation is getting out of anyone’s real control. Even if some messy compromise were reached after enormous public pressure, the pent-up anger of the French people is such that some of the current protest would probably continue. Increasingly, protests, strikes, and various forms of direct action are taking place at local level, carried out by different groups with different agendas, only very loosely linked by a disgust with the current situation and the desire for change. By mulishly pressing ahead with a spectacularly unpopular measure, and arrogantly dismissing all opposition to it, Macron has, I think, set in motion events that neither he nor anyone else, can control. Now as we’ll discuss, all this may eventually fade away with time. Or it may not.
In terms of what might happen, let’s start with the main actors, and first the President. Now the Presidency under the 1958 Constitution, is a strong, executive one. There are reasons, for this, and they go back to the confusion and weakness that typified the Fourth Republic (1946-58) and much of the Third Republic (1870-1940), which were ultra-parliamentary regimes with a largely ceremonial President. As I have explained, the nature of French politics is binary, fragmented and highly personalised, and the strong executive Presidency is the least worst way yet identified of coping with that, and keeping a coherent system together. Inevitably, of course, because this is France, people are disenchanted and now want to go back to the system that perished in 1958 amidst threats of a military coup.
The President is directly elected by popular vote every five (originally seven) years in a two-round contest, in which the second round is between the two best-placed candidates in the first. This element of direct election was intended to give the President a special status above mere party divisions, and under De Gaulle, and to a decreasing extent under Pompidou, Giscard and Mitterrand, this was partly achieved. In turn, this was because there was a lot to do in France—de-colonialisation, nuclear weapons, nuclear power, modernisation of the state and infrastructure, strengthening Europe—on which there was a wide consensus that went across party lines. By the end of Mitterrand’s second term in 1995, there was nothing similar in view: the European Union, the last unfinished task, was up and running. Since then, and especially since the Presidency of Sarkozy (2007-12) the President has been a much more narrowly political figure; under Macron the Presidency seems indistinguishable from his own ego.
The President appoints the Prime Minister (see below) who forms a government. As with many aspects of the French Constitution, the processes are not spelt out in detail. The President can nominate anyone they wish as Prime Minister, even from outside politics, and that person can then serve, as long as the government they form is acceptable to the majority of the National Assembly. The President selects the Ministers “at the suggestion” of the Prime Minister, though what that means in practice depends very much on personal relationships and the balance of political power. The President can change Prime Ministers easily, so long as he or she controls the NA, and it’s rare for a Prime Minister to serve a whole Presidential term. Importantly, the President, not the Prime Minister, chairs the Council of Ministers, just as the French King used to. Even the timing of the Council (Wednesday mornings) has been preserved: politics has a lot of built-in inertia.
The actual powers of the President in the Constitution are expressed in very vague terms: ensuring respect for the Constitution, taking final decisions, guaranteeing the continuity of the State and national independence, and so forth. What all this means in practice has been debated by constitutional lawyers since 1958, but it depends ultimately on the personalities involved. In theory, the President is removed from day-to-day politics and policy-making, much as the King was. In practice, the President has been developing into a kind of super Prime Minister. This is partly because, under Chirac, the President’s term was reduced from seven years to five, and the Parliamentary elections take place after the Presidential ones, so the two offices have become closely connected. In recent years, Prime Ministers have more and more seen themselves as the Chief of Staff of the President. Indeed, Macron is on record as saying last year that the two offices had effectively merged. The increasing politicisation and power of the Presidency didn’t start with Macron, but his use of it has greatly contributed to the current malaise.
Finally, although it’s theoretically possible to get rid of a sitting President, in practice it would be very difficult. The arrangements in force since 2007 mean that this could happen in the case of “a breach of his duties patently incompatible with his continuing in office”, according to the official English translation of the Constitution. What this would mean in practice, no-one is sure (although there’s no suggestion this has to be a criminal offence), but if such behaviour were alleged, the President would be brought before a High Court composed of the Senate and the National Assembly, and relieved of his mandate if there were a two-thirds affirmative vote (ie absences and abstentions count against.) I hesitate to say anything is impossible these days, but this must come pretty close to it. Again, we’re dealing with a design principle of the Fifth Republic: the creation of a stable political system that didn’t risk being overturned every five minutes.
But there is another side to the question. The idea that sovereignty does ultimately come from the people means much more in France than it does in most other western countries, and is deeply ingrained in the political culture. There is a deep historical distrust of “parties” as forces that co-opt the political system for their own advantage, and the idea of a professional, technocratic de-ideologised political class along Anglo-Saxon lines still meets with a lot of resistance. All French children learn (or did when the history of their country was taught) that the 1200 members of the Constitutional Convention of 1789 resigned and went back to their homes once the job was done. And when governments fail to listen to popular concerns, they are often criticised for ignoring the “will of the people”: a nebulous concept, but one which reflects the belief that elected politicians are delegates for the population as a whole, and should behave as such. In France they are “deputies”: ie they are deputed by the people to serve on their behalf. So not just demonstrations, but riots and even insurrections, are seen as perfectly understandable, and even justified, when the government or the President is clearly not listening.
This is particularly true of the President, who is given powers comparable with those exercised by a King (war, justice, diplomacy etc) but is entrusted with these powers as a representative of the country as a whole, not as a partisan politician. Some of the anger against Macron derives from the fact that he is simply ignoring overwhelming popular opposition to his “reforms,” and some also from the fact that he has been arrogant and patronising, suggesting that he knows best and that his opponents must be stupid. In a country with a vigorous tradition of reacting against executive presumption, Macron comes over rather as a King occupying a recently conquered territory and trying to bring it under control. His undisguised contempt for France and the French doesn’t help.
But of course all of this rests on one simple but unenforceable rule: a President or a government which realises that it is acting against the wishes of the population, or at least a large part of it, will back down, and modify or abandon its plans. But there is no recourse against a President who is convinced that he’s right, and that the French people are stupid. I’ve seen a few articles and comments recently along the lines of: how long can Macron survive? To which the answer is, unfortunately, up until April 2027 if he grits his teeth and hangs on. It’s worth bearing in mind that not all Presidents go out to cheers and flowers. When Chirac left power in 2007, hardly anyone noticed. When Sarkozy was defeated in 2012 the legal system was already closing in on him. When François Hollande reached the end of his mandate in 2017, he was so unpopular that nobody cared. Macron can, if he wishes, hang on another four years. There are legitimate questions about what he would do, and how much practical power will slip away from him: after all, unlike Chirac, he’s not an old man seeing out the last few years of his mandate quietly. But if the French actually want to get rid of Macron, it will have to be through the front door of the Elysée: a point I return to below.
The second main actor is of course Parliament. It has two chambers, but for simplicity I’m going to leave aside the indirectly-elected Senate, and concentrate on the 577 members of the directly-elected National Assembly (NA) . Under the Fifth Republic, the control of the NA has generally been in the hands of the President’s party, or at least a coalition of parties. There have been a couple of occasions where the NA was controlled by opposition parties, and the President of the day was forced to appoint a political enemy as Prime Minister. This process, known as cohabitation actually went off without too much trouble: a tribute, many argued, to the solidity of the Fifth Republic’s institutions. But what happened in 2022 was unprecedented: there was no overall majority for any party or coalition.
Macron’s party and its allies would have needed 289 seats to have a bare majority. As things stand, they have 170 seats from his own party, 51 from the “centrist” Democrats, and 29 from Horizons, the party led by Edouard Philippe, formerly of the Right, subsequently Macron’s first Prime Minister. That gives them only 250 seats. To get a majority for any legislation (the arithmetic is complicated by some seats being vacant and the existence of a number of independents) they essentially have to persuade a significant number of the 61 right-wing Republicans to vote with them. So far, they have generally been able to do this, but there are problems. One is the internal conflict within the Republicans, the other is the solidity of this de facto coalition itself.
The Republicans are the latest iteration of the attempt, now twenty years old, to create a single party of the Right, and, as I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, they have always faced problems in trying to reconcile so many different strands of opinion. The traditional base of right-wing parties was in the countryside and small towns where many people still attend church, and social attitudes haven’t changed much since, oh, the 1990s. The butcher, the baker, the painter and decorator, the local solicitor, the Man with a Van, the physiotherapist, the small poultry farmer, the woman who runs the local pharmacy, the reasonably well-off retired … these have historically been the backbone of their support. And this support has come from reasonably solid communities where people know each other and families tend to stay together: in a sense, the mirror-image of the old working-class communities where the Left was dominant.
This electorate feels abandoned by the current leadership of the Right, and by the political system generally. It’s not that they are necessarily opposed to currently dominant social trends, it’s just that these mean nothing in the context where they live. The self-employed nurse, for example, is finding it more and more expensive to run her car, pay for rent, light and heat her consulting room, and contribute to the family budget. Increasingly, she’s dealing with cases of violence against children and drug-related problems. Her husband, meanwhile, runs a small removals business on increasingly narrow margins. People aren’t moving as freely as they used to, costs are going up everywhere, putting food on the table is constant worry. He’s short of one person in the business because none of the recent applicants can read and write properly. But to talk about such things is impossible in the current political climate: no-one is interested. Shut up, you fascist! So it’s hardly surprising that such people look towards Marine Le Pen, since she seems to be the only political figure prepared to admit that such problems even exist.
So the Republicans should move towards the populist Right? Not so fast. Because, apart from the leadership and their sympathisers in business and the media, they also have the urban electorate to consider. Such people are better-educated and wealthier, almost always own property, sometimes several properties, complain about taxes and bureaucracy and the lazy working class, as well as the decline in standards of service in restaurants, have their children privately educated in expensive schools and, for obvious reasons, tend to dominate the party apparatus. But many, especially the young, are globalist and European in outlook, and regard themselves as enlightened on social and environmental issues. Perhaps one half of a couple is a Manager, relations clients in a communications agency, and dreams of working in London or New York one day, and the other half is a lawyer specialising in up-market property deals. They’ve started to find the traditional Right rather unappealing and thought hard about voting for Macron in 2022
There is no way, even in principle, that a political party can straddle such a divide, and as its support declines, and the number of its deputies decreases, this becomes more and more obvious. Its electorate doesn’t actually represent a defined class with clear interests, but rather several, often conflicting interests, which is why talk of the “bourgeoisie” or even the “middle class” here is quite misguided. Now what’s significant is that this, remember, is Macron’s de facto parliamentary majority. And not only is the unity of this majority in danger, it’s not clear that they will continue to vote for him regularly anyway. In the recent confidence vote, a number of Republicans actually voted against the government, and the reasons they apparently did so are interesting. One because Le Pen had done exceptionally well locally in the Presidentials, one because their voters had turned out massively in recent demonstrations, one because of widespread poverty in their constituency, one because of the large percentage of the workforce engaged in agriculture … and so on. In general, it comes down to fear of losing, including fear of losing control at local level, where the Republicans have always been strong.
The other problem is the internal coherence of whatever Macron’s party is called this week. This problem falls into two parts. First, the party was, and remains, a middle-class protest vote party, without much in the way of an ideology. It has very limited support at local level, and it’s not unfair to describe it as Macron’s Fan Club. Many of the deputies were elected and re-elected on Macron’s coat-tails, and as he becomes increasingly unpopular, they suffer too. On top of that, quite a few deputies are defectors from other parties, and may not be willing to go down with the SS Macron in 2027. Greater love, perhaps, has no politician than to lay down his career for his country, but we’re not seeing much evidence of that for the moment. The second is that Macron runs his party like the absolute monarch his detractors claim he is. There is no Number Two, there are few if any senior figures known to the general pubic, and most of all there is no designated successor. Indeed, it’s not clear that Macron has thought much about what happens when he leaves politics in 2027, nor indeed that he cares. His party, like France itself, is only a vehicle for his ambitions, and will be cast aside when he no longer needs it.
Now at some point, even the densest member of Macron’s party in the NA is going to realise all this. How, they wonder, will I be re-elected in 2027? In 2017 and 2022 it was possible to say, Vote for me, I’m from Macron’s party. By contrast, Vote for me, I was a member of Macron’s party even if you’ve never heard of me, isn’t such a good slogan. And as 2027 approaches, as the media is consumed with speculation about Macron’s next job, as Le Pen strengthens in the polls … how many will stay with the party to the bitter end, and why would they, anyway?
So there is a measurable chance that Macron’s de facto majority will start to come apart. Not all at once maybe, but perhaps issue by issue, and to varying degrees. There will be an atmosphere of constant crisis and last-minute deals. There may also be further confidence motions, and it’s very likely that Macron’s party will lose one. Now, it’s important not to misunderstand what this means. In a Westminster system, if a government loses a vote of confidence then there’s an election. This is not true in France, and it goes back to the distinction between President and Government. A President is there for five years and that’s it. A government is a group of deputies selected by the President and his appointed Prime Minister as Ministers. If that government is defeated on a confidence motion, then the President appoints another Prime Minister and the game starts again. Again, the inherent stability of the Fifth Republic—welcomed after the chaos of the preceding system—militates against substantial change.
What might Macron do? The most unlikely course of action, though actually the safest, is nothing. That is, calm down and just be a figurehead President while he starts discreetly enquiring about another job. But that’s not Macron, who just thinks that Louis XIV was not forceful and authoritarian enough. An interesting option would be a threat to dissolve Parliament unless the Republicans agree to support him. His party would be hurt, and Le Pen would be strengthened, but the Republicans might be wiped out. He’s already said that dissolution was a possibility a week or two ago, which is an implied threat.
But the real problem here comes from the simple fact that Macron leaves in 2027, and at that point, his Fan Club Party will collapse. So what are all those deputies going to do in, say, 2025 and 2026? Will they abandon Macron and try to stand for re-election under other labels? Why should the other parties stand down their own candidates to let them? Who will win the constituencies if they don’t stand again or are defeated? Macron has ensured that no-one is there to carry his banner, so it’s hard to see how the existing deputies could organise themselves into a new party. And given the mood in France at the moment, anyone wishing to be elected in most of the country will want to put as much distance between them and him as possible. If groups of his party start to break away, Macron will have no response except the threat of dissolution. It’s quite possible then, that the country will be ungovernable, that no successful government can be formed, or if formed will last for very long. Macron will have contrived to bring together the worst features of the Fourth and the Fifth Republics, not that he will lose any sleep as a result.
The Anglo-Saxon media seems unable to decide whether all this means there will be a revolution tomorrow, or whether those excitable French will just accept all this and go back to eating garlic like they always do. I don’t think either will happen. We’re in an extremely dangerous situation, which is now effectively out of anyone’s real control. We have a President who thinks insulting people is a sufficient policy in itself, and a very large part of the population, going well beyond those directly affected by the pensions issue, who feel a personal loathing for him. Only Macron is capable of calming the situation, and he is unable or unwilling to do so. The pot is boiling over.
A number of things could happen. At one extreme, we could be in for years of sporadic on-and-off conflict, in Parliament and in the streets, and strikes, demonstrations, violence and sabotage. (Did I mention that Paris hosts the Olympics next year?) That’s the optimistic possibility. At the other end, is the nuclear option of Article 16 of the Constitution, which would enable Macron to declare a “state of exception”and take whatever measures he deemed necessary, including introducing new laws. There are some after-the-event controls on his actions, but not that many, because this is, after all, a state of exception. The only time the provision has ever been used was in 1961, when the Army tried to overthrow De Gaulle. Macron doesn’t need to prove a justification to anybody, but from a political perspective, there are perhaps two scenarios where he might be misguided enough to try such a move. One would be if Le Pen’s party, (the Rassemblement national or RN) looked like winning the 2027 elections, in which case the argument would be that he was “saving France from Fascism.” More plausibly, if the economic situation continues to deteriorate and the fallout from the Ukraine crisis is anything like as bad as seems likely, then the political and economic situation in France in 2027 could be very rough indeed, with consequences we can’t currently foresee.
Part of the problem, as always, is timescale. It’s helpful to distinguish here, as always, between proximate and underlying causes of political change. All the underlying ingredients are in place for a violent conclusion of some kind, but it requires a proximate cause to set them alight. Maybe something will happen next week, or maybe years will ago by and disaster will be continually averted. It’s impossible to say because it depends on things that haven’t happened yet. It’s not impossible that the system will lurch on for another four years, in which case the most likely political outcomes are that Le Pen wins the Presidential election, and that no party has, or can construct, a working majority in the NA. Chaos will then result.
Alternatively, things may fall apart quite quickly. If the government continues its confrontational approach, the possibility of violence is quite real. But what the French call the “forces of order” are actors as well in this case. They’ve had a rough time since 2015, and, whilst at the moment they are obeying orders, this won’t last forever if the situation continues to get worse. A modern state, for all its technological capabilities, is an extremely fragile entity, and it doesn’t take much to undermine it. At the end of 2018, at the height of the Gilets jaunes crisis, several hundred demonstrators were moving towards the Elysée Palace: being from the provinces, they weren’t quite sure where it was. Had they actually found it and broken in, a helicopter was standing by to evacuate Macron. The gendarmes who guard the Elysée are not going to die for Macron’s ego, nor are they going to open fire on their fellow citizens.
So it could be the worst of times, or it could be the less worse of times. I don’t know, and anyone who says they do is lying. French history has had a habit of turning up competent people when things get really rough (De Gaulle, of course, but Pierre Mendes-France, Léon Blum, Jean Moulin who unified the Resistance etc) but this is a historical tendency, not a guarantee for the future. But in France, as elsewhere, the contrast between the severity of the problems the country faces and the hopelessness of its political class has never been so horribly, painfully, stark.