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Macron confronts a mistrustful France

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Welcome back. As street protests sweep France, embattled president Emmanuel Macron is sticking to his divisive and unpopular pensions reform, declaring it to be “a necessity for the country”. The conventional view is that this is, by and large, a hole he’s dug for himself — but it seems to me that the uproar surrounding the reform is symptomatic of more deep-seated troubles in the Fifth Republic. I’m at [email protected].

Earlier this month, Macron forced through his pensions reform by dispensing with a parliamentary vote and using instead a special provision of the constitution known as Article 49.3. For two reasons, this was a questionable move.

First, it suggested he was brushing aside opposition in the legislature and public opinion in an imperious fashion unsuited to democratic politics and the mood of society. Second, it shattered the illusion that his party’s loss of its parliamentary majority in elections last year was no big deal, and that he could continue to advance his reform agenda until the end of his second term in 2027 by cobbling together ad hoc coalitions of support in the legislature.

In a television interview this week, Macron vowed to press on regardless with his decision to push through a rise in the pension age. He wouldn’t call snap elections, and he wouldn’t sack Élisabeth Borne, his prime minister — even though the usual practice, when something goes wrong on the home front in France, is for the president to throw the premier to the wolves.

Nonetheless, Macron’s presidency is clearly in difficulty — and the problems go much deeper than the pensions reform, or indeed than the president’s sometimes high-handed style of rule. We can break down these troubles into three areas: the economy and public finances; social cleavages across France; and a crisis of the Fifth Republic’s institutions, starting with the presidency and national political parties.

Shaky public finances

Macron’s chief defence of the pensions reform is that it will shore up France’s public finances and help the economy generate the wealth required to pay for what is one of the world’s most generous welfare states.

As the Eurostat chart below shows, France spends more on pensions, as a proportion of gross domestic product, than all other 26 EU states except Greece and Italy.

Bar chart of Pensions expenditure (% of annual GDP) showing France's spending on pensions is relatively high

It is also rather remarkable that the French state has run annual budget deficits every year since the 1970s. Public debt has risen steadily from 20.8 per cent in 1980 to more than 110 per cent of GDP today, according to IMF historical data.

Macron’s pensions reform may help a bit to preserve medium-term fiscal sustainability, but the truth is that the biggest pressures on the public finances come from elsewhere.

The cumulative pensions deficit is forecast to be €60bn-€80bn by 2030, according to Scope Ratings, the credit rating agency. But its analysts make this important point:

Interest payments, rising due to tighter ECB monetary policy, will likely range from €60bn to €90bn in 2027. The pension deficit is also small compared with the cost of measures introduced in response to the pandemic (€165bn) and the energy shock (around €100bn), as well as President Macron’s commitments to invest more in nuclear power (€50bn) and defence (€100bn by 2030).

In other words, as in 18th-century France, there is a slow-burning crisis of the public finances — and just as vested interests and social opposition blocked the monarchy’s efforts at fiscal reform, so one government after another in modern France is failing to get to grips with the problem.

Social tensions in la France profonde

The occasionally violent public demonstrations against the pensions reform recall the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement of 2018-2019, a largely provincial burst of outrage directed initially at proposed fuel tax increases. The historically minded Macron likened those protests to the Jacqueries, or peasants’ insurrections, that form a rich part of the French political tradition.

Why is la France profonde — provincial, rural communities outside prosperous cities — so angry? In this article for Social Europe, Guillaume Duval writes:

For 40 years, successive governments have been asking the French people to accept ‘reforms’ reducing social rights. These have degraded public services in health, education, transport and so on, while eroding purchasing power and worsening working conditions . . . The French are fed up.

For those of you who read French, take a look at this commentary by Marie Astier for the Reporterre website. She quotes Willy Pelletier, a sociologist at the University of Picardy, as saying that French people in rural areas and small towns feel abandoned and scorned.

“There’s no longer any doctor, any stable job, any bus, any train,” Pelletier says. Social spaces “which provide self-esteem are also in the process of being liquidated — hunting societies, associations for parents of schoolchildren”.

The decline of public services outside France’s big cities poses political as well as social problems. In a 2016 study (here in French), Ifop, the public opinion researchers, found a correlation between the disappearance of services such as post offices in rural areas and the rise in voters’ support for the far right.

Political decay of the Fifth Republic

In every electoral cycle, the consequences of France’s geographical and social divisions are becoming more obvious. As we see in the map below, showing the results of the second round of France’s 2022 presidential election, support for the far-right Marine Le Pen was spread out across la France profonde, while Macron triumphed in large, well-off cities — notably the greater Paris area, where he took up to 80 per cent of the vote.

You are seeing a snapshot of an interactive graphic. This is most likely due to being offline or JavaScript being disabled in your browser.

This may spell trouble for the future.

On one hand, as Philippe Marlière of University College London has explained, Macron’s achievement as a politician has been to blow away the mainstream left-right divide that defined French politics in the Fifth Republic’s first 60 years:

Instead, three blocs of a similar electoral strength have emerged: a liberal-conservative one with Macron, a far-right one with Le Pen and a left one with [Jean-Luc] Mélenchon. The electorate in each bloc appears volatile and polarised.

On the other hand, such a three-way split is particularly ill-suited to effective government under the constitution of the Fifth Republic. Designed by Charles de Gaulle in 1958 to arm the presidency with extensive powers, it nevertheless hamstrings the incumbent’s domestic policies if, like Macron, he has no legislative majority.

To this, one can add the problem of a steady decline in the once almost mystical prestige of the presidency.

It used to be said that the French people hankered for a larger-than-life leader, perhaps even a “man on horseback” such as Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon III, Georges Boulanger or de Gaulle.

By the time of François Hollande, Macron’s predecessor, who was president from 2012 to 2017, France didn’t have a man on horseback so much as a man on the back of a scooter, driven by a chauffeur who escorted Hollande to his assignments with his lover, actress Julie Gayet.

Upon becoming in 2017, at the age of 39, France’s youngest leader since Napoleon Bonaparte, Macron tried hard to restore a fresh aura to the presidency.

But the 2022 election campaign, and the sapping of his power since then, have highlighted what Blanche Leridon calls “the centralised and solitary nature of France’s presidential power”. She writes:

In an increasingly fragmented society, the exercise of power by a single individual sows deeper seeds of division and increases mistrust of democracy and politics.

Leridon also recalls the unforgettable words of Jacques Chirac, president from 1995 to 2007, on the way power in the Fifth Republic is concentrated so heavily in one man’s hands:

There is no room for two crocodiles in the same pond.

(You can find Chirac’s quote in the original French in this Le Monde article from 2006.)

All in all, there seems to be a case for extensive political and social reform in France. What do you think? Can Macron continue his reforms, as he vows to do, or is he blocked? Vote here.

More on this topic

Life in France’s banlieues: overview and battle plan — a commentary by Iona Lefebvre for the Paris-based Institut Montaigne think-tank

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