British citizens voted weeks ago, and most markets are back to normal already, but Brexit remains ubiquitous. Another vote will get attention, though – more precisely, an upcoming presidential election. This particular vote will, nonetheless, not happen as soon nor will receive as much coverage as the American presidential election. The French two-round system-based election will be held on April 23rd, 2017 and May 7th, 2017. This vote is still half a year away, so how could it be settled so soon? Well, to properly shed light on such a conundrum, one should first look into French history – more precisely into the roots of French society and its relations with democracy itself.
Historical Heritage: Dysfunctional Democracy
The first thing to know about France is that democracy is a rather new political system considering the country’s long history. The nation has been led by powerful leaders – king, emperor, etc. – for more than a thousand years. The First Republic – which was the first attempt at democracy in France – actually led to the election of Napoléon Bonaparte, who soon after became emperor as a result of a coup. In a similar fashion, the Fifth Republic – which still holds today – is the result of the threat of a military-led coup backing Charles de Gaulle for his presidency. This led to the reinforcement of the powers held by the President, and a regime with authoritarian tendencies such as having a single state-owned television channel. This, of course, happened in another time, and Charles de Gaulle happened not to turn into a dictator, but many similarities could be found. Such reinforcement of the powers held by a single man, the President, between the Fourth and the Fifth Republic could be seen as a democratic drift into an authoritarian regime. This statement happens to be true but not to accurately highlight the on-going phenomenon: historically speaking, Republics have been an authoritarian drift into a democratic regime.
French citizens are not as fond of democracy as one would like to think. Changing old habits that one had for years sometimes seems like the greatest of challenges. Well, in this particular case, this habit happens to be a thousand years old. On top of this, arguing is almost as a national sport to the French. Therefore, only strong and powerful figures are able to stand out from the crowd as leaders unifying discordant voices and to push the country forward. As a matter of fact, today’s France can easily be seen as the result of former powerful leaders’ actions. The refusal of France to engage in the Irak war is the direct legacy of de Gaulle’s empty chair policy and opposition to ‘American imperialism’. The elitist French educational system – which is considered as even more elitist than American and British educational systems by many – is the direct heritage of Napoléon the First. CPGE – or classes préparatoires – were created as fourth to sixth years of high school. Several Grandes Ecoles, such as Ecole Normale Supérieure and Polytechnique, initially developed under Napoléon’s reign.
Looking For A Leader
Generally speaking, France’s – along with most continental European countries’ – legal system is based on the Code civil, which was established under Napoléon the First. Similarly to Japan, France experiences high levels of centralization in Paris. This organisation system derives directly from Louis XIV’s centralised absolutism, which required the whole court to permanently reside where the king did. One could most likely dive into an endless list, but readers will have understood the significance of French history in modern French society by now.
Now that readers developed a good grasp on several underlying dynamics of French society, they should be able to see how relatively unstable democracy actually is in France. On the one hand, a purely democratic regime with a strong parliament would lead France to stagnation because of administrative rigidities and political stalemate. Indeed, due to political plurality – in the sense of the existence of numerous parties, unlike the US and the UK historical, political spectrums – a veritable cacophony of dissonant opinions makes it merely impossible to pass a single meaningful bill through both chambers. Long term consequences of this regime type are, among others, decreasing comparative advantage leading to economic stagnation, involuntary unemployment, political unrest along with increasing importance of far-left and/or far-right parties due to inefficiencies of traditional political parties. This portrays the current condition of France. Recent presidents exercised their status as Fourth Republic presidents and not as Fifth Republic ones indeed. On the other hand, a democratic regime with concentrated power in the hand of a few bears the risk of turning into an authoritarian regime. Such a drift, fortunately, remains unlikely due to the lack of involvement of French military officers in politics: a coup has almost no chance to succeed without military support. The latter has historically always been preferred to the former, and nothing so far has suggested this reality changed.
French citizens were in search of this providential man/woman at the end of World War II, during the Algerian War, and since the financial crisis. As much as purely democratic regime fits France in times of peace and economic prosperity, a powerful and charismatic leader who unifies the country and makes required structural changes to ensure long-term prospects is what France wants but most importantly needs.
The current political framework has nothing to do with what has just been described, though. French politicians are everything but charismatic leaders. As a matter of fact, politics is widely considered the less trustworthy profession in France. This use of the term profession has profound implications: politics is no longer the realm of hard-working individuals who earned that title through blood, sweat and tears, but rather another way of making a living. Politicians should know better how to manage their country, shouldn’t they? Well, they doubtlessly would if their only concern was not being re-elected. The best way to win re-elections is not to upset voters and by sticking with popular concerns and beliefs, without regards to personal convictions or consistency. Dishonesty and lack of respect for voters have been nourishing this distrust of politicians for years.
President Hollande’s hairdresser
The French president François Hollande – whose approval ratings dropped to a historical low of 13% in May – represents a perfect example. With all due respect, he is widely considered a member of the gauche caviar – French idiom for Champagne socialist – along with most members of the government. He happened to spark controversies on that matter quite regularly. The allegation according to which he referred to low-income families as sans-dents – literally “no teeth” since dental care is excluded from the French free healthcare system – constitutes the most representative illustration. He has recently been heavily criticised due his hairdresser’s inappropriate $10,958 monthly salary as well. Such lack of decency does not represent a peculiarity from the president, though: the whole political class is afflicted. Many American citizens regret the impossibility to elect Barack Obama for a third term and mourn over their upcoming presidential candidates. As inopportune as this situation could feel, French citizens do not even have that opportunity to miss a recent former president. Neither François Hollande nor Nicolas Sarkozy ever earned as much respect as Barack Obama did. The choice seems to be the lesser of two evils since the whole political class transpires the same feeling to French citizens.
The French political landscape is however inhabited by two wolves, being Alain Juppé and Emmanuel Macron. The former, current front-runner for the primary of right wing party Les Républicains and mayor of the world capital of wine Bordeaux, experienced tremendous drawbacks during his long political career due to a profound commitment to his beliefs. Even though he earned voters’ respect and displayed an impressive track record, his advanced age might sabotage his campaign since French voters will most likely favour changes in the political landscape. The latter, Emmanuel Macron, has an even less typical pedigree: not even 40 years old, holding an MA in Philosophy and former high-profile investment banker at Rothschild & Cie. He is the only member of the current government ever to have been employed in the private sector. By not being an archetypal politician – particularly as he is no longer affiliated with the French Socialist Party –, he has gained high levels of confidence: 36% of the population wants him to run for president, and 38% believe he would be a good president. As low as those numbers might seem, a candidate reaching such percentages without resorting to populism constitutes an amazing achievement for French standards. Unlike other politicians, he has been able to advocate for business-friendly reforms to enable economic rebound since he benefits from both popularity and absence of re-election concerns. Even though Emmanuel Macron never officially stated his wish to run for President next year, he recently said that his bipartisan movement En Marche! will “carry it together to 2017 and through to victory”. Being different, not politically affiliated, bold and relatively appreciated by citizens, he could not really hope for more strings to his bow. Unfortunately, as a potential presidential candidate, Emmanuel Macron will have to face countless challenges. Even if peculiar to most politicians in general, the foremost hindrance lies in his lack of connection with low-income households. Besides his MA in Philosophy, he followed the classic Science Po-ENA path towards a career in politics. Worse, if one profession might scare low-income voters more than politicians would, this is investment banking. Undertaking meaningful reforms probably hurt his image among the less fortunate. He has, for instance, been involved in slightly heated quarrels with striking trade unionists who blamed him for not wanting to “create jobs by diminishing the weekly working hours” – which is already one of the lowest in the OECD.
For historical reasons, France requires charismatic leaders to step forward in times of crisis. Unfortunately, the recent political landscape did not offer proper candidates for such role. The upcoming presidential election fortuitously seems to offer two potential appropriate candidates: Alain Juppé and Emmanuel Macron. Emmanuel Macron most likely is more fitted to succeed due to an image of youth, of renewal in the ageing political class, and of readiness to undertake the necessary structural reforms. Nonetheless, the challenge to earn low-income layers of French society is yet to be tackled.