The Fifth Republic in France has become characterised by an increasingly narrow political class, while the political engagement of citizens has plummeted. The EU has not succeeded in improving these weaknesses in democracy, which can only be surmounted through a successful campaign for deep reform: a transition to the Sixth Republic.
With a turnout of 42.43%, the extreme right wing party leading with 25% of the votes, leaving behind the Government’s Socialist party with less than 14% of the votes, the results of the 2014 European elections in France were not only stupefying, they also generated (along with a flurry of commentaries) a general sense of resigned indifference towards the expected, forewarned and predictable electoral outcome. Heavy fatigue with respect to entrenched politics adds onto an increasing trend of defiant and remonstrative behaviour as seen since the early 1990s. The clearest indication of this fatigue was perhaps when street mobilisation against such results simply failed, in stark contrast to what had happened in 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen qualified for the second round of the presidential election.
As in other European democracies, the emergence of populism is embodied in new, younger faces, in competent and professional looking profiles, and, above all, a self-confident discourse and a belief in its capacity to act (exiting the Euro, national sovereignty, etc.). In contrast, what is largely lacking in policy-making discussions among the Government’s main party leaders is the citizenry’s denial of credibility and trust. Political discussions among professional politicians have become vacuous, marked by disbelief, particularly when it comes to the mythical return of economic growth while offering no other alternatives.
As in other European democracies, the emergence of populism is embodied in new, younger faces, in competent and professional looking profiles, and, above all, a self-confident discourse.
Europe – Failing to Fill the Void
Faceless as it is, including austerity as its defining policy, Europe is unable to fill the democratic vacuum. While national policy appears to be largely determined at the European level, it is the election of one man to the Presidency of the French Republic, that continues to fascinate the French every five years. Contrary to the European elections, electing a representative to the Elysée mobilises more than four out of five French citizens at the end of a campaign that captivates the national media before and beyond. But this one man’s capacity for action (always) quickly turns out to be illusory. With every passing election, the newly elected president is rejected more quickly and deeply than the time before. Elected in May 2012 on the promise of a growth pact that was negotiated at the European level in alignment with the January 2013 Budgetary Treaty, François Hollande is a case in point.
Persistent doubts regarding the ability of governments to act while at the same time the European relay appears very weak are prevalent throughout Europe, not just in France. The disconnect between a political democracy focused on the national level and government interventions that largely escape it is everywhere. However, the French variant of political distrust now seems mixed with cold anger and worrying contempt. One would almost hope that indifference would prevail.
For far too long, the Fifth Republic’s institutions have struggled to adapt to contemporary political behaviours ever since the beginning of the 1990s, including the country’s long-lasting democratic ideals.
At the root of its maladaptation are individuals who, in living from and for a political profession, stall evolution in defence of what they believe are their vested interests. Dating back to 1958 and General du Gaulle, the presidential election of the Republic by direct, universal suffrage weighs heavily on the way today’s 5th Republic operates. Bestowed with far-reaching powers, once elected and throughout his tenure, the French president becomes politically irresponsible.
The French parliament is weaker than in most European parliamentary regimes. As a result, the culture of policy discussion has not been more developed. Given the fact that tiers of local authority have multiplied over the course of recent decades, a local-level President (be it of a Municipality, an intermunicipal association, a Department, or a Region) morphs into a caricature of the former. Local presidentialism is not a conducive context for discussion and deliberation either among elected representatives or with constituents. Despite efforts in recent years to increase citizen engagement and participation, local power has been found to be both strong and flaky. The demand for greater democracy and participation among the French expresses itself in a thousand ways, in particular through the massive results of a recent survey (TNS Sofres, June 2014).
Popular Disengagement: The Professionalisation of Politics
The need for more horizontal power, a frequent topic of public policy discussions and deliberation, stumbles on the notion of vertical power resulting from direct universal suffrage that paradoxically generates a powerless head of state. Parliamentarians, who frequently head their local authorities in addition to occupying their seat in the senate, have long resisted imposing limits on multiple mandates against regularly polled public opinion, because they are deeply tied to the corporatist interests of a representative democracy. The laws on decentralisation as well as institutional regulations regarding political representation illustrate this attachment. It is unclear whether François Hollande’s reform on multiple mandates, limited and deferred as time goes by, will be able to adequately open up democratic politics.
In addition, the presidential election drains political parties who live to designate their champions for the ultimate race and place elected and salaried officials in local government. Political parties have abandoned all doctrinal ambitions in pursuit of electoral outcomes. With less than 1% of French registered as party members, most French are now repulsed by party politics. Parties in Government consist of representatives, future representatives, and salaried political appointees. The professionalisation of politics that historically accompanied massive access to politics (by allowing the less fortunate to live from it), is today leading to its attrition.
Indeed, few individuals feel attracted to the world of politics (or feel entitled and allowed to enter it). Consequently, the French feel hardly (if not poorly) represented. Significant reforms were undertaken during the early 2000s, such as gender parity in politics as French democracy had historically excluded women. Gender parity allows for a more gender sensitive representative democracy. Today, leading candidates pay more attention to the “colours of representation” on their lists and are a little more attentive to young candidates. However, working class categories remain the forgotten strata of political representation. Although a little more representative of French society’s diversity, representatives are still perceived as primarily motivated by professional interests, with little or no concern for the travails of everyday life, and as rather corrupt, which recent scandals cannot deny.
The professionalisation of politics that historically accompanied massive access to politics (by allowing the less fortunate to live from it), is today leading to its attrition.
Representative Democracy in Crisis: the Struggle for the 6th Republic
Academics, civil society, political parties (Europe Ecologie – The Greens, the Front de Gauche) have for a long time, been fighting for a 6th Republic, parliamentary and participatory. But explicit refusal to change the rules of the political game by those who play it, or the embracing of the 5th Republic by those who fought it (from François Mitterrand to Arnaud Montebourg), seem to make these episodic attempts futile. Is it too late for change? Are the conditions in place for a leader (5th Republic obliges) to harbinger a parliamentary and participative 6th Republic, in sync with French citizens’ aspirations? Did we miss the boat after April 21, 2002 and the presence of Jean-Marie Le Pen in the second round of the presidential election, which remains a trauma for many?
A ‘crisis of representative democracy’, which has now lasted for more than 30 years, is a sign of a deep and sustainable change. Defensive politicians fighting for what they perceive to be their interests, as representatives, prevents the political system from adequately adapting to changes in society (e.g. in education, critical capacities, individuation, active Internet participation, media multiplication, etc.). Marine Le Pen meets France’s democratic aspirations by reaching out to the people, to the losers of globalisation, by commitments to referendums and popular initiatives, and by denunciations of the “political class” made up of the two largest parties. She does so effectively, convinced, convincingly, and with a smile on her face.
While Europe fails to create new democratic and economic prospects for the future, and simultaneously disarms the Republican monarch, the President of the French Republic, France is unlikely to emerge from its state of political depression any time soon. It would be a game changer if Europe were ecological, social, democratic, and libertarian…