As noted by Kuper, France was already in turmoil before President Emmanuel Macron’s unilateral decision to raise the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64, as he failed to pass the measure through the parliament. However, the anger goes beyond the issue of pensions, as it is a continuation of a generalized, long-standing anger against the state and the president, which is embodied in the French presidential system.
The presidential system This embodiment emerged in 1958, amidst the chaos of the Algerian war and fears of a military coup, and was strengthened in 1962, when it was determined that the president would be elected by universal suffrage. “The constitution was written by and in part for Charles de Gaulle, the 1.80-meter tall hero of war, the ‘man of providence’, whose very name made him the embodiment of ancient France,” notes Kuper. “He agreed to return as leader if France silenced the political parties and the parliamentarians. Thus, the constitution created a strong executive power, albeit not centered on the president.”
“It is time to end the Fifth Republic, with its all-powerful presidency – the closest thing the developed world has to an elected dictator – and usher in a less authoritarian Sixth Republic.”
“The clause 49.3 allowed the executive power to bypass the parliament and pass laws without a vote. The activation of 49.3 allows opposition parties to submit a motion of no confidence in the government, which, if passed, would force the government to resign,” Kuper notes. “This clause has been used more frequently in recent years, as the government has struggled to push through its reforms.”
In this context, the anger of the French people can be seen as a rejection of the autocratic tendencies of the Macron government, which is perceived as trying to impose its will on the population without regard for their concerns. This has fueled the discontent and protests, which have continued despite the government’s efforts to quell them.
A society with chaotic contradictions. Kuper refers to the chaotic contradictions of French society between the capital (Paris) and the provinces, as well as between social classes. “The technocrats of democracy gradually extended their power to the most isolated villages. Almost everything that moved in the largest country in Western Europe was governed by a few square kilometers in Paris,” he notes. Paris thus became the seat of a powerful bureaucracy to which the French agreed to surrender a large part of their income in exchange for free education, healthcare, pensions, and occasionally subsidized vacations.
This “social contract” allowed France to experience some of its most glorious years, the “golden thirty years” from 1945 to 1975. However, the 1973 oil shock led its economy into stagnation, from which France has been struggling to emerge for decades without success.
Stagnation and crisis Generalized stagnation led, among other things, to the rise of the far-right, with Jean-Marie Le Pen making it to the second round of the presidential elections in April 2002. It was also expressed by the extremely low approval ratings of the last presidents, ranging from 20 to 40%. “Few voted with enthusiasm, and many simply stayed home,” Kuper writes. The current crisis in France is a result of this long-standing stagnation, with the country facing high unemployment rates, social unrest, and a growing sense of disillusionment among its citizens.
According to Kuper, the current governance of France is characterized by three power blocs: the presidency, the judiciary, and the street. “If the president decides to do something, only the street can stop him – by freezing the country through protests and strikes,” he notes. And as the president consults the unions less and less in the context of social dialogue, the road becomes increasingly violent.
The Sixth Republic Returning to the slogan of the Sixth Republic, Kuper notes that it was already put forward by Jean-Luc Melenchon in the last elections. However, according to the FT columnist, Emmanuel Macron is better suited to implement it. He is a man “whose plans usually fail, but at least he aims high.”