Summary: All the western nations are experiencing similar stress from slow growth, cultural change, immigration — and political structures that no longer well fit their societies. We can learn much from how others cope. Now its France’s turn. The results from Sunday’s elections seem unlikely to improve or resolve their problems.
“Has France’s Fifth Republic Run Its Course?”
Stratfor, 5 May 2017.
French voters will head to the polls on Sunday to choose their next president from two highly unorthodox candidates. Neither the centrist Emmanuel Macron nor the far-right Marine Le Pen belong to the country’s major parties, which failed to make it to the final run-off round. The unprecedented flop of France’s traditional rulers is just the latest in a long list of signs that the political system established by Charles de Gaulle nearly 60 years ago may have run its course. Whoever wins Sunday’s election will face the formidable challenge of trying to impose themselves on a system built around the traditional parties, of which neither front-runner is a member.
The French presidency is one of the most powerful democratically elected positions in the world. The person to claim it will become the commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces and will select its prime minister (with the approval of the National Assembly). The president also has the right to call a referendum and dissolve the lower house of Parliament at will.
The roots of the office’s clout stretch back to its architect and first occupant, Charles de Gaulle. In 1958, de Gaulle was called to return to power to lead France through a national emergency: The country was on the verge of civil war over a push for independence in Algeria. He answered that call and, believing the excessive power of Parliament to be a significant source of instability in French politics, created a new “Fifth Republic” led by a president. (There had, after all, been 23 different prime ministers in the 12 years prior.) The system of governance he designed has stayed in place ever since.
The power of the presidency has not gone entirely unchecked, though. While the position has a dominant role in foreign and defense policy, the prime minister and his Cabinet take the lead in domestic matters once they are installed — that is, at least, in theory. In practice, the president’s voice is usually influential in issues both at home and abroad. Nevertheless, Parliament’s sway has been growing through various constitutional reforms since de Gaulle’s rule.
To be effective, a president must also command a majority in the National Assembly. If they do not, a dysfunctional arrangement known in France as “cohabitation” arises in which infighting slows and often stalls legislative progress. To avoid this outcome for a fourth time in the Fifth Republic’s history, lawmakers passed a reform in 2000 aligning presidential and parliamentary terms, a move intended to give new president a better chance of filling the National Assembly with members of their own parties.
The politicians best served by this system are those belonging to France’s two main camps: the Republicans and the Socialists. Though these names have changed over the past few decades, the two-party split has broadly tended to represent the center-right and center-left. Victors of the presidential elections have thus been well-placed to win the legislative elections the following month, the logic being that the French public would likely vote consistently in both polls. The same cannot be said for Macron and Le Pen, who do not represent a party with an established parliamentary base — a situation France has never faced, and that its political system is not designed to handle.
Each candidate has a strategy for solving this problem. Macron, the current favorite in the polls, has created his own movement named En Marche! that he intends to have participate in the legislative elections. Half of the party’s members will be “new” politicians recruited from the ranks of civil society, fresh faces to counter the country’s entrenched elite.
For the other half, he hopes to attract members of the traditional parties to his new centrist banner (potentially gutting their parties in the process). This project is still underway, however. Macron is negotiating with existing politicians as he campaigns for the presidency, and though the early parliamentary polls show that a sizable share of the public is willing to vote for En Marche!, the success of his strategy will remain unclear until the new party’s true public face begins to emerge.
Le Pen’s plan will be even harder to execute. The two-round electoral system that has kept her National Front party from the presidency in the past has likewise stunted its participation in parliament. So, even though the movement has campaigned for decades, it currently has only two seats in the National Assembly. According to the latest polls, the party is positioned to gain 15-25 of 577 seats in the June elections. Should Le Pen win the presidency, then, cohabitation seems all but certain. Her potential response, based on an aide’s May 3 statement, could be to hold a referendum on moving to a legislative system of proportional representation. (She would, however, need the backing of more than 100 lawmakers to have the vote.)
The move wouldn’t be without precedent: In 1986, France relied on proportional representation for legislative elections and the National Front made one of the best showings in its history, prompting the electoral measure to be swiftly shelved. If Le Pen sticks to this course of action, she would likely dissolve Parliament soon after adjusting the electoral system and call for a new vote in hopes of gaining the legislative majority needed to put her policy platform into action.
Both of these strategies are fraught with risk. There is a very good chance that either candidate would end up squaring off against a hostile Parliament, resulting in political impasse. Even in the best of times that outcome could be problematic, but with a 10% unemployment rate and a continued state of emergency in the wake of several terrorist attacks, France needs a strong government. Without it, the kind of dissatisfaction that fueled the rise of radical candidates Le Pen and Jean-Luc Melenchon, who together held 41% of the vote in the election’s first round, will likely only increase. And if it does, calls to change the French political system will become more urgent.
Regardless of who wins the race or whether they escape cohabitation, there’s good reason to believe the days of the Fifth Republic are numbered. Demands for a “Sixth Republic” have been getting louder for the past three elections, and given Le Pen and Melenchon have advocated sweeping constitutional change, the idea was indirectly supported by two-fifths of the French public in last month’s vote.
As it’s currently designed, the republic is best-suited for a strong leader hailing from one of two parties in a bipolar political landscape. But with French politics having been split four ways, and the Socialists having received just 6% of the vote, that system seems to no longer hold. In the past, France has been unable to transition from one Republic to the next without a coup, war or widespread riots. The challenge for any would-be reformer, then, will be to find a way to effect change without perpetuating that dark tradition.
“Has France’s Fifth Republic Run Its Course?”
is republished with permission of Stratfor.
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