France’s Presidency Is Too Powerful to Work

Emmanuel Macron will likely be the next occupant of the most powerful office in the democratic world. He'll also be its next victim.

French presidential election candidate for the En Marche! movement Emmanuel Macron looks on after delivering a speech during a campaign rally in Reims on March 17, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI        (Photo credit should read FRANCOIS ≈)
French presidential election candidate for the En Marche! movement Emmanuel Macron looks on after delivering a speech during a campaign rally in Reims on March 17, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI (Photo credit should read FRANCOIS ≈)

On April 23, many French people were profoundly relieved by the victory, in the first round of the presidential elections, of Emmanuel Macron, a man against whom most of them had voted. To see the French presidency fall into the potentially dangerous hands of the far-right is, in theory, no small matter. President Macron (as it will almost certainly be) will hold an immensely powerful office — what is, on paper, perhaps the most powerful office in the democratic world. Yet the chances of him being able to wield that tremendous power with any semblance of effectiveness are, if we are to gauge by recent history, slim. Macron might not only be the next French president but also the French presidency’s next victim.

The French presidency today is a unique institution. It was created as a reaction against the failings, real and perceived, of the parliamentary-controlled governments of the preceding Third (1870-1940) and Fourth (1946-58) Republics. These two systems had themselves been reactions against the autocratic regimes of Napoleon III (1851-70) and Marshal Pétain (1940-44) — but French conservatives criticized both republics for weakness, instability, and lack of leadership. For years, they hankered for a regime that would again give authority to a powerful leader, whether monarch or soldier, who would embody national unity, keep political factions under control, and provide strong long-term direction. The disasters that befell France in 1940 (invasion by Nazi Germany) and in 1954-62 (a colonial war in Algeria that threatened to engulf the whole country) seemed to prove the inability of a “weak” parliamentary republic to guarantee national survival.

Charles de Gaulle, the Catholic conservative soldier who had led wartime Free France and helped bring about its liberation in 1944, had long wanted to transform the system, and in 1958, he finally got his chance. France was in the midst of a national crisis brought about by the bloody war of decolonization in Algeria. The Fourth Republic had collapsed while de Gaulle had been absent from politics for a decade. He made his comeback on the condition that he would finally be granted what he had long desired: sweeping power to create a new constitution in his own image. It deliberately concentrated power and prestige in the president, whom de Gaulle viewed as a “national arbiter,” and downgraded the role of Parliament and political parties. The faithful Gaullist Michel Debré, who supervised the text, called it a “republican monarchy,” and it has loomed over French political life ever since.

This “monarch” has huge powers — far greater than, for example, those of an American president. He (all have, so far, been men) is literally irresponsible, in that neither Parliament nor any other institution can dismiss, impeach, or force him to resign. He appoints the prime minister, is commander in chief of the armed forces, and chooses the holders of a vast range of offices, including in the judiciary, the administration, the military, and state industries. He can also exercise near-dictatorial powers in times of emergency. These powers are further enhanced by limits on the role of Parliament; the president can, on his own authority, dissolve the legislative body and call for referendums. Parliament’s power to oppose governments or amend legislation is restricted. It can only overthrow a government after a vote of no confidence, in strictly limited circumstances. Moreover, if the government itself declares any of its legislation a “question of confidence,” it can only be defeated by a vote of censure within 24 hours — otherwise, the laws are automatically enacted without a vote. In practice, the president exercises even greater powers than the constitution specifies: He generally runs the government with the prime minister as his subordinate and takes personal control of foreign and defense policy.

François Mitterrand, himself later a ruthless user of presidential power, originally attacked this Fifth Republic institution as a “permanent coup d’état” — and indeed, it was intended to bypass selfish lobbies and ignore factional opposition. Undeniably, the system has had considerable achievements. It allowed de Gaulle to extricate France from the Algerian bloodbath, most dramatically by giving direct orders to the troops over public radio. Moreover, his Fifth Republic became the first political system since the French Revolution to be almost universally accepted. It has enabled political power to pass peacefully from the right to the left, and vice versa, without any attempt by extremist parties to disrupt the process or undermine the system. Unlike some of its right-wing predecessors under earlier regimes, even the National Front insists that it works only within the system.

But as the provider of strong and decisive government — its essential task in the eyes of its founders — the republican monarchy has been at best a partial success and one that, as the decades go on, has been more effective at undermining its own authority than asserting it.

The French presidency seemed to function well enough in its early years, though even de Gaulle, national savior and hero that he was, departed from power in 1969 more ignominiously than any other president so far. Still, however one judges the successes and failures of his immediate successors — Georges Pompidou, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, and Mitterrand — France’s government worked, broadly speaking, as well as or even better that those of its European neighbors. But for the last generation, this has been decreasingly true. Elected on promises of great changes, all presidents, whether right- or left-wing, have failed to deliver.

Why this failure? The fundamental problem is the “republican monarchy” itself, which both warps the processes necessary for effective democratic governance and holds those who assume the office to near-impossible standards, ensuring that they inevitably leave the nation disappointed.

The presidency dominates the political game in France; in doing so, it also sucks the life out of other great institutions of the state. Parliament and consequently the political parties are devalued. The great departments of government, such as the prime minister’s office, finance, foreign affairs, and defense ministries, are in practice subordinate to the president’s advisors, ensconced in the Élysée Palace. There have been many cases of major decisions being taken by the Élysée before the relevant ministries have even been informed. The president’s unaccountability, and his isolation within his bubble of power, causes a repeated pattern of political failure: Policies are frequently decided by the president without significant consultation, then, in the absence of an effective legislative body to channel criticism within the system, are instead abandoned in the face of public outcry, including strikes and resistance in the streets. This, in turn, enhances both the French reputation for mass militancy and the sense that the country is in crisis. Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, and François Hollande all promised sweeping change and all ended despised and impotent.

But the problem of the republican monarchy goes beyond structural hurdles to good governance. The office of the president — created by and for a legendary figure — demands too much of a normal politician. He is required not just to lead a party or form a government but to embody national unity, to set national strategy, and to symbolize the dignity of the nation, both to itself and to the world. Yet he is, at the same time, a politician. The president cannot be removed, but as soon as he is elected, he becomes the target of opposition and discontent, obsessed with his ratings and prospects for re-election. The two competing demands do not complement one another; they mean that the president can never be, as de Gaulle intended, a leader of the whole nation, standing above party politics. This results in outcomes like that of Hollande, who was, for almost the whole of his tenure, the most unpopular president on record, with his approval ratings falling to an astonishing 4 percent.

It is difficult to say what has changed between the Mitterrand presidency and today: It may be simply that the rot was there all along and that it is France’s underlying problems that have grown worse, putting more demands on its politics. Regardless, most agree that France today seems stuck in a state of stagnation, even decline. Most people are clearly discontented. A functioning political system — and none, of course, is perfect — needs ideally to create a consensus in the country or at least present it with coherent and realistic choices. France’s system is patently failing to do that: The four leading presidential candidates in the first round, all self-proclaimed rebels, proposed a range of nonconsensual, divisive, and even extreme programs, all of which could only potentially be carried out because of their personal powers as president. The first-round result, in turn, was decided by a small margin within a confused and disillusioned electorate. Under such circumstances, future protests in the street are almost guaranteed.

After the second round of the election, on May 7, the Fifth Republic will face an unprecedented test. De Gaulle’s “republican monarchy” was assumed to be supported by a popular consensus and backed by a strong and docile party in Parliament. The next president can count on neither. A President Marine Le Pen might try to use the powers of the “republican monarch” to force through a divisive program, but this would precipitate a dangerous national crisis, with the clear danger of serious violence in the streets.

In the more realistic scenario of a President Macron, he will be a moderate committed to playing by the rules, but he, too, is likely to struggle. Though there will be a pro-Macron surge, it would be miraculous if he won a parliamentary majority in June. So he may be forced from the beginning of his term to accept either “cohabitation” with a conservative prime minister, which would hamper his chances of uniting the country, or a coalition with the Socialists and other left-wing parties, which reject his core program of economic liberalization. Moreover, Macron is strongly pro-European Union in a country where criticism of the EU is rapidly growing: Of the 11 first-round candidates, only two (Macron and François Fillon) were unambiguously pro-EU. Whatever happens, much depends on the untested Macron showing remarkable capacities for leadership and guile. Macron promised as the first-round results came in that he would turn a “new page in our political life.” That he has such intentions is clear. But the record of recent “republican monarchs” shows that their power to shape events is often an illusion.

Photo credit: FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI/AFP/Getty Images

Robert Tombs is a professor at the University of Cambridge and the author of The English and Their History.

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