American News

Is France Ready to Storm a New Bastille?

A newly united left in France proposes an ambitious program, bridging social justice, ecology and European reform that could challenge Europe’s neoliberal establishment.

The storming of the Bastille, 1789. © Everett Collection/Shutterstock

May 10, 2022 13:35 EDT

In case no one has noticed, the world’s geopolitical order in 2022 is not only under severe stress, it has actually begun shaking beneath our feet with an acceleration in the past week. The ongoing Mariupol drama is reaching its final gruesome act, which will likely change everyone’s (meaning the media’s) perception of the state of the Ukraine war, without pointing in the direction of peace or any kind of possible permanent solution. Whatever the outcome for the people of Ukraine, there will however be long-lasting global consequences, most of them defying anyone’s ability to predict.

One of the consequences that is already being felt concerns the status of democracy in many regions of the world. By status I mean not just the attribution of power to different categories of political force, but the idea people hold of what democracy is, whose interests it represents and how it should play out in terms of actual governance. France may be the latest and most interesting example of the challenge to that status.

The American model for democracy

In the West, and more particularly in the US, a nation that has been labeled the birthplace of modern democracy, most youngsters are taught in school that constitutional democracy, unlike other more arbitrary forms of government, aims at being both fair and reasoned. They assume that for the most part it achieves its fair and reasonable goals thanks to a carefully constructed system of checks and balances.

In theory, democratic institutions are designed to reflect a logical pattern by which the population of any political entity, from a township to a nation, elects leaders committed to securing the resources and defining policies that respond flexibly and appropriately to the physical, social and economic environment its citizens live in. Democratic decision-making follows from what people believe to be an open dialogue about actions required for the security and well-being of its citizens.

Democracy produces governments in which all citizens are involved to the extent that they choose leaders who reflect their needs, values and interests. Decision-making becomes complex at the level of a nation state, particularly in a world that has become increasingly diverse and mobile. Presumably the leaders elected in modern states nevertheless understand the complexity of the balancing act that representing a diverse population requires. Nobody ever believed that would be an easy task.

In a stable world, most capable leaders — and even quite a few incapable ones — manage to juggle with competing forces. On one hand, they respond to powerful private interests that sit often invisibly at the core of the economy. On the other hand, they try to remain sensitive to public pressure that expresses itself in a variety of forms, transmitted notably by the media and omnipresent polls in the periods between elections. This pressure from the undefined masses incites leaders to find ways of keeping most of their citizens reasonably happy, or at least minimally unhappy. In times of relative stability, this to-and-fro occurs within social and economic systems that evolve very slowly, usually by tiny incremental steps. 

Most leaders see their job as consisting of managing a slow evolution within a stable historical framework. They have no means of predicting the earthquakes that occasionally shake history itself, suddenly throwing it off kilter. In the typical two-party systems of modern democracies, politicians have learned to master the dynamics of alternating access to power. Essentially, they provide the same product, but with a different label and a different tagline. They are comfortable knowing there are periods when, having lost an election, they may forfeit the reins of power and literally relax as members of the opposition, whose actions will not be criticized. They spend their time in the opposition critiquing their opponents and investing their creativity in plotting their return to power.

Problems, however, arise when history itself becomes unstable, when the equilibrium of a certain habitual balance of power begins to falter. It was the case in Europe, for example, towards the end of the 18th century (1789) and again in the early 20th century (1914-17). At such times, instability takes the form of highly irrational and uncontrollably complicated wars and revolutions. Leaders accustomed to managing the routine of occasional domestic tension and generally anodyne international rivalries, begin to lose their foothold. They will typically seek to keep their populations in check and avoid revolution. But they lack the means to deal with the chthonic forces of history. We appear to be entering into such a period in 2022.

The psychology of leadership

Leaders see themselves as actors in the scripted play of history. But to act in politics, as opposed to theater or cinema, means not just to follow a script but to observe history and craft appropriate reactions to the unexpected. In democracies, as opposed to autocracies, leaders should think of themselves as “fair observers” and act accordingly. (A fair observer seeks to integrate the widest range not just of information but of sensitivity to the dynamic forces of history that defy the logic of pure information).

Faced with the challenge of a moment in history in which even the values assumed to be shared by people convinced that they represent an evolved form of civilization are called into question, we may legitimately wonder whether it is even possible for any leader to be simultaneously both an actor and an observer of history. In such moments, leaders typically fail to observe, but proceed to act. As soon as they act, they become observed by others. At the same time, the very awareness of being observed may distort their own ability to observe, precipitating actions based on faulty and disastrously incomplete observation. This is one way of accounting for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions that have now spawned a global crisis that extends far beyond the Russian-Ukrainian border.

But the same pattern of failure to observe accompanied by a compulsion to act holds true for other leaders, especially when the degree of instability makes the consequences of any action especially risky. US President Joe Biden appears to be as clueless about where the forces of history are moving as Putin himself. Both have responded to specific pressure points on the system of power they have been charged with maintaining. Both have misjudged some of the forces of history at play in the background.

Putin reacted to three decades of shifting policies in the West, which appeared to him aggressive with regard to his own power and the stability of his system. This ever-increasing pressure was accompanied by an observable decline of the effective power and prestige of the American hegemon following its catastrophic military initiatives in Afghanistan and the Middle East since 2001.

Biden reacted to the growing challenge felt across the globe to the supremacy the US established three quarters of a century ago following the Second World War. Not only has US prestige declined as a consequence of George Bush’s Middle Eastern wars and the financial collapse of 2008, but the perception that the official supremacy of the US dollar can now for the first time be effectively challenged has created a growing resolve in the rest of the world to overthrow what is perceived as the tyranny of the dollar over the global economy. That vague but increasingly well-defined perception of fragility is becoming as symbolically real as the French population’s perception of the significance of the Bastille prison in 1789.

Will France overthrow the 5th Republic?

Though any fair observer of history should be aware of the providential power of symbols, it is perhaps only a coincidence that France is poised to use its democratic institutions not just to call into question the system Charles de Gaulle put in place more than six decades ago, the Fifth Republic, but also to send shock waves capable of producing significant cracks in the façade of Western complacency.

For the third time a candidate representing the right or the center-right defeated a far-right candidate with the surname, Le Pen. The first time Jacques Chirac, a direct descendent of the original Gaullist party, defeated Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the xenophobic Front National. Emmanuel Macron has now defeated Jean-Marie’s daughter, Marine, twice. It has become a sport of establishment politicians in France to maneuver the electoral processes so as to find themselves opposed to a far-right candidate in the runoff election for president. Victory is practically certain. Legitimacy is claimed at a very low cost.

Macron played the game perfectly to ensure his re-election. The problem he perhaps hadn’t anticipated is that, not having the talent or even the inclination to create a well-defined party to back his presidential status, a resurgence of unity on the right or the left could imperil his chances to reign over a fragmented political landscape. He assumed that the egoistical rivalries and the thin skin of representatives of the traditional parties would guarantee the gap in the center that he managed to consolidate into a fragile simulacrum of a political party after his victory in 2017.

Alas, to Macron’s consternation, a strong showing in third place during the presidential election in April by the former socialist and resolutely progressive leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon created the conditions that would convince the previously warring parties on the left, including the Green party and the communists, to imagine a program of government they would all adhere to in their quest for a parliamentary majority coming out of June’s legislative election. This is bad news for Macron, who can only count on traditional political opportunists from the center-right and center-left to join forces with him in a movement he has rechristened the Renaissance (formerly, la République en Marche). Very few French voters feel inspired by Macron’s example. His hope is that just as they preferred electing him to a candidate on the extreme right, they  will react similarly to a threat from the left, which they will try to represent as extreme.

There may be a slight problem with the symbolism of the new moniker of his party. By claiming to represent a Renaissance, he may be implicitly suggesting his former term as president was the equivalent of the Dark Ages. And in some sense, it was, marked by the revolt of the Yellow Vests and the black plague of Covid. But the French remember the Renaissance as a period of history dominated by kings that was eventually overturned by the 1789 revolution.

Could the unified left seize effective power over the government? Legally, Macron is in place for five years. But the left has adopted a theme Mélenchon has insisted on for the past five years: replacing the Fifth Republic by a Sixth Republic, which would be less focused on presidential powers. If Macron is forced to nominate a left-wing prime minister — the most likely candidate being Mélenchon himself  —  pressure could mount towards establishing a new constitution. Though the kind of constitutional regime change a Sixth Republic would represent appears unlikely so long as Macron remains president, the worm is already in the apple. At some point there is likely to be a constitutional crisis with an uncertain outcome, capable of upsetting the supposed stability of what may be called “the European compromise,” a philosophy of governance built on the twin pillars of Anglo-Saxon liberalism and dependency on US leadership in European defense via NATO.

Among the planks of its platform, the left calls specifically for a radical revision of the strategy concerning Europe. While reaffirming France’s adhesion to the European Union, the left-wing government coalition has vowed to put pressure on Europe to move away from its traditional neoliberal ideology. This frame of reference has, in the eyes of many Europeans, not just in France, become more and more fragile as the source of shared values. This could eventually lead to fracturing what has become an increasingly fragile consensus between Europe and the United States. With the end of the Fifth Republic one of the main goals of Charles de Gaulle could then be paradoxically fulfilled: releasing France, and possibly Europe itself, from the iron grip of Washington.

What is happening in France is not an isolated event. Brazil will have a new presidential election later this year. Polling shows a profound dissatisfaction with its right-wing president Jair Bolsanaro, who won election five years ago thanks to highly suspect legal maneuvering. The likely winner of the new election is left-wing former president Lula da Silva. One of the promises da Silva has made this time around is to “create a currency in Latin America, because we can’t keep depending on the dollar.” Voices in the Beltway are likely to announce, “Them’s fightin’ words.”This was, after all, the ambition of the late Muammar Gaddafi for the entire African continent. That is, in a brief moment of history before US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton intervened to make sure that she would subsequently have the opportunity to proclaim, “we came, we saw, he died.”

The American sanctions against Russia after its invasion of Ukraine have led to an acceleration of initiatives emanating from various quarters to free the global economy from the enforced dominance of the dollar. For five decades or more it has been a tool not so much of payment for international trade as of political control, allowing the US, either through its own efforts or those of the International Monetary Fund, to have its cake and eat it. The establishment of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency in 1944, followed by President Richard Nixon’s decoupling of this currency from the gold standard in 1971, forced other countries to hold their credit in dollars (US Treasury securities), meaning that the wealth thus created abroad was transferred implicitly back to the US economy. Every fluctuation in value — devaluation and revaluation – could be used by Washington to its own political and economic advantage. As economist  Michael Hudson explains, “This monetary privilege–dollar seigniorage–has enabled U.S. diplomacy to impose neoliberal policies on the rest of the world.”

In other words, there are indications that a fracturing of the neoliberal economic and political world order initially established at Bretton Woods nearly 80 years ago and then transformed by Nixon in 1971, creating the first theoretical compromise in its integrity, is now taking place. The last three decades have seen two major evolutions. The first is the failure of Europe to achieve its collective hope of acquiring the kind of influence that might redress the balance of power in relation to the United States. The second is the rise of China to a level of economic and political clout that has forced a massive rethinking of global hegemony.

Speculation about the destabilizing impact of the rise of what has been called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) on geopolitical power has been rife the past two decades. China finally emerged as an economic powerhouse unto itself, capable of directly challenging US hegemony. Russia, with a weaker economy, has continued to play an increasingly abrasive political role, culminating with the current war in Ukraine. As the tectonic movement in various latitudes begins to increase, India, Brazil and South Africa will see emerging opportunities to exert their influence on events in a world that is clearly starting to have a very different look from the one people have been accustomed to in recent decades.

Though not quite in the same league, France itself may have a role to play, and as so often in the past, that role will be cultural and intellectual rather than a manifestation of its limited political and economic clout. If the move towards a Sixth Republic actually commences, its symbolic importance for the rest of the world should not be underestimated. Europe will be the first to take notice if an unanticipated French government under Macron begins rowing against the established European current. 

Mark it on your speculative calendars. The 21st century’s Bastille Day may well be June 19, the date of the second round of next month’s legislative elections. Even if the left is successful, its moral victory will not be followed by “impure blood” in the furrows, nor a Reign of Terror, nor the rise of a new Napoleon. But its disruptive message will resonate throughout Europe and beyond mainly because the old order, which Macron still represents, is losing its footing across the globe.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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