A Fifth Act for the Fifth Republic

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Emmanuel Macron, France © Lorie Shaull

France offers us an unfolding drama with a cast of thousands.

On May 7, nearly two-thirds of French voters boldly elected Emmanuel Macron president for the next five years. Or should I say two-thirds of French voters bravely refused to consider electing the representative of something that is closer to a neo-fascist dynasty than a right-wing political party?

In the immediate aftermath of the election, most of the French media have stuck with the first interpretation, which gives a good grade to French democracy, but the second clearly comes closer to reality. And yet neither of those conclusions sums up the deeper meaning, or plethora of meanings, of this election. Here are some of the more significant ones.

All the traditional parties are in disarray

In the first round of the presidential election, the Socialist Party, in power since President François Hollande’s upset victory over Nicolas Sarkozy five years ago, barely achieved the 5% threshold required for public reimbursement of campaign costs reserved for competitive parties. With Benoît Hamon garnering just over 6% of the vote, the great majority of traditional Socialist voters chose to back the renegade Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who now finds himself in a strong position to redefine the left, essentially composed of four groups: the Socialists, Mélenchon’s Insoumis movement, what’s left of the once powerful Communist Party and the Ecologists.

The Républicain party, launched by discredited one-term President Nicolas Sarkozy and his followers in 2015 as the latest avatar of the center-right tradition dating back to Charles de Gaulle and the foundation of the Fifth Republic, was already in trouble when François Fillon snatched the nomination in the primary from the Jacques Chirac acolyte, Alain Juppé, before getting mired in a financial scandal that doomed his candidacy. As the French say, between the Sarkozy wing of the party, including Fillon, and the Gaullists “there was water in the gas” (a spanner in the works).

Given the amount of gas President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Fillon produced already during their five years in power, the prospect of a second round showdown between Fillon and Marine Le Pen and furthermore of a full term of Fillon as president was certain to depress everyone on the left and at least half of the traditional political class on the right. On the sensitive question of immigration and religious tolerance, Fillon aped Le Pen, hoping to draw votes away from her toward a more respectable candidate, much as the Socialist Manuel Valls had done, believing that hatred of an enemy is the key to unifying the masses.

The result was discord and a lingering malaise on each side of the political spectrum. While everyone acknowledges that terrorism is a very serious problem, political attitudes toward it have in their way become an even more serious one. The politicization of racial relations — and in particular the jingoistic posturing around it — can only have destructive effects on social harmony, however useful it is for a particular candidate to get elected.

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Finally, Marine Le Pen’s Front National, founded by her father, has emerged wounded and deformed by what is perceived as a humiliatingly weak score, especially when compared to some of the more sensational forecasts and, more particularly, to the populist triumphs of Brexit and Donald Trump. As the results were being announced, Le Pen promised to go away and redefine the party, even to the point of giving it a new name. In doing so, she hopes to attract a sufficient number of Fillon voters away from both the right and the center, those who reluctantly voted for Macron. With a bit of retooling, she imagines she can even appeal to working-class voters who were attracted to Mélenchon, though the success of that strategy would depend on Mélenchon being seriously marginalized by the now weakened Socialists.

Furthermore, the media, sensitive to dynastic intrigue, immediately began suggesting that in the wake of Marine Le Pen’s poor finish, a third member of the family — 27-year-old Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s grand-daughter and Marine’s niece — could be poised to become the new leader. Two days later the same media reported, to its own astonishment and Grandpa Jean-Marie’s chagrin, Marion’s sudden and total withdrawal from politics.

Ironically, some see Marine’s decision to rebrand and redesign the party as inspired by Macron’s example, the man who got elected by building a party around his own personality. Marine’s limited but very real success in the past has been achieved by distancing herself from her father, perceived as an extremist. Marion was closer to Jean-Marie. The new-look party appears to be a gesture to sever for good the umbilical cord that existed between her father’s and her image.

New parties should emerge, unless stifled by the old guard

As Cécile Guerin has reminded us in an article on Fair Observer, both historical and purely electoral logic dictate that new forces will emerge and remodel the political landscape. Macron’s promised but still virtual party — la République en marche! — is the obvious novelty. No one knows out of which bricks or which combination of building materials it will be constructed, but Macron will need to don his Superman costume to have it in place before the first round of the legislative election on June 11. True to his inclusive approach and thanks to the absence of preexisting party loyalties, he will draw as opportunistically as possible from the center, the right and the left by offering floating political personalities the chance to be part of a “presidential majority.” This follows the implicit logic of the Fifth Republic, built around the authority and gravitational pull of the president. Failing that, Macron will have to settle for a coalition and eventually — as has happened in the past — a “cohabition” with a prime minister drawn from the opposition.

At the same time, and partly because Macron has already attracted into his retinue some key personalities from the Socialist Party, a recomposing of the left appears inevitable. The unexpected success of the resolutely left-wing and increasingly popular Jean-Luc Mélenchon has put this former disciple of François Mitterand in a position to put away the old Socialist hierarchy discredited by Hollande’s lackluster and ineffective presidency, former Prime Minister Valls’ unpopularity and candidate Hamon’s utter failure to draw votes.

Do the young generation even remember who Mitterand was, the man who brought the left to power in 1981 and positioned the Socialist Party for decades as a responsible party of government? A diminutive man but a towering political personality, Mitterand created the myth that kept the Socialists in the picture right up to President Hollande’s election in 2012. Party stalwarts are still counting on the continuity of that tradition, but Mélenchon has done them one better — cleverly and very subtly hijacking the memory of Mitterand by invoking his own historical link with the Mitterand revolution. Rather playing on the nostalgia for the good old days, Mélenchon generates his own revolutionary fervor and insists on moving forward toward a Sixth Republic, which would be a revolution. This is more than Mitterand. It’s de Gaulle, who created the Fifth Republic. But it’s also an authentic revolution in the sense that Mélenchon wants to abolish what he calls the “monarchic” premise of the Fifth Republic — so expertly exploited by both de Gaulle and Mitterand — and invent a new type of parliamentary system.

Can Macron — whose voters, to the tune of 43%, say they voted against Le Pen rather than for the former Rothschild banker — create the majority he needs in the assembly or even a coherent coalition capable of governing, given that everyone across the political spectrum is vying with everyone else, either to keep whatever grip they already have on power or prevent others from getting any new advantage?

The center will take its chance, attempting to save the Fifth Republic

The center has had an ambiguous status throughout the Fifth Republic. It proudly exists and has been represented over the decades by several high-profile politicians, such as Edgar Faure, Jean-Louis Borloo and François Bayrou. But for the most part it has been resigned to keeping a low profile. Giscard d’Estaing identified himself as the leader of a centrist party, but he was left with no choice but to appoint the quintessential Gaullist Jacques Chirac as his first prime minister and thereby accept to live in the shadow of Gaullist logic. When he managed to rid himself of Chirac in 1976 and appoint in his place Raymond Barre, an academic economist — confirming the popular perception that centrist politics was pure technocracy — his presidency began a rapid decline, preparing the way for Mitterand’s triumph in 1981, followed by a repeat performance in 1988.

To any observer France is a profoundly bureaucratic and ultimately technocratic nation built around its extensive fonctionnariat (civil service). It is run by an elite trained in its Grandes Ecoles as “ingénieurs” (a much higher distinction than the term “engineer” in English), but French culture hates to admit, let alone celebrate that obvious fact.

Today, the French perceive Macron as a technocrat with a talent for PR, an apprentice politician who deftly squeezed through the suddenly widening gap opened between the decomposing left and right. His style and personal image as a technocrat can reassure, but it will spark no passion. In an odd way, in the immediate aftermath of the election, his victory in France feels a lot like Tony Blair’s in Britain back in 1997, marking the end of the Margaret Thatcher era. There is a sense of a break with the past and a vague hope for a future guided by a young man no longer constrained by the rituals and obsessions of the elites of the past.

But the comparison only holds so long as the observer remains focused on the personality, the youth and the attractive demeanor of the new leader. The historical conditions couldn’t provide more contrast. Blair rose to power by promising to bring the Labour Party up to date, to make it compatible with an economy that Thatcher had spent nearly two decades redesigning. Blair called it the Third Way and it sounded reasonable and modern. Similarly, Macron describes his party as “neither left nor right,” a negative version of the same message. Though less affirmative and visionary, this negativity may appear appropriate at a time when, in most developed countries, voters are more focused on rejecting the parties in power than on offering any one of them a mandate.

Blair understood that Thatcher’s successful political ethic rested on two pillars: loyalty to capital markets and openness to opportunistic war, whenever it may be required to consolidate the leader’s political reputation. Although these two principles were antithetical to traditional Labour ideology, Blair seized the opportunity of aping Thatcher’s success. The Labour Party had no choice but follow the leader who had brought it back into the corridors of power. Success breeds success. And that indeed is how politics works in the age of political mass marketing: power first, policy later. And even then, you go with the policy that you calculate as sufficient to ensure the continuity of power. It isn’t rocket science, but it is political science, at least in its modern form.

The Labour Party claimed the working class as its historical base. By the end of the 20th century, it consisted essentially of people employed as office and service workers rather than in industry and manufacturing. As a group, this generation of employees continued to feel a lingering loyalty to the Labour Party as the voice of all ordinary working people, whether middle or lower class. Blair spoke in their name while following the new rule book bequeathed to him by Thatcher. Surrounded by marketing experts and hype managers, he supplemented this somewhat cynical but well-meaning foundation with a brazen PR strategy aimed at mystifying both the media and a population momentarily confused by the erosion of its sense of the strict class distinctions that had so long defined English, if not British culture. In other words, Blair capitalized on two contrasting and fundamentally opposed traditions, leaving the contradictions to reemerge much later, most dramatically when the 2016 Brexit vote brought them back into focus.

Blair could manage this contradiction and serve three terms because he took over a well-structured party that — fed up with being on the outside looking in during the Iron Lady’s lengthy rule — willingly handed him the reins. Macron’s case is very different. He flirted with the Socialist Party as its finance minister, but resigned before having the opportunity to integrate the party apparatus and ascend in its ranks. Understanding the party’s weakness and his own inability to rise to a position of leadership — parvenus are never welcome within France’s institutions — he prepared his path as a presidential candidate by inventing a movement purported to be a political party, but which in reality was a purely fictional one. He gave it a name in the form of a slogan terminated by an exclamation point: “En Marche!” Political PR at its finest! In terms of historical comparisons, this puts Macron much closer to Silvio Berlusconi who, in 1993 created, ex nihiloForza Italia, than it does to Blair who took over Labour in 1997. Perhaps Macron had become familiar with Guy Debord’s “société du spectacle” and sought to mobilize its logic to his personal advantage.

In the days following his election, weeks before the now impending legislative election, no one can predict how Macron’s strategy will play out. Will he succeed in creating a presidential majority in the form of a party by drawing in ambitious and insecure personalities from the existing parties? On election night, François Bayrou, the valorous but persistently disappointed leader of multiple presidential campaigns, could gloat, suggesting his long prophesied time had come. Bayrou is a possible prime minister. He represents the persistence of the center, to which he adds a marked humanist, left-leaning tendency. Significantly, he was among the first to support Macron and actively oppose Fillon.

We can expect Bayrou to pull as many strings as he has within his grasp to build Macron’s party. But no one, not even Bayrou, is sure of how solid any of those strings may be in a political landscape that currently resembles bumper cars more than it does a super-highway. When everyone is jockeying for position, not just for the present but also an amorphous future, predicting even what might entice the people you know best becomes an ungrateful and even perilous task.

There is no easy transition in view

As Atul Singh recently reminded us in The World This Week, because of the profound complexity and inertia of its institutions, for things to change durably in France, revolution rather than reform tends to be the chosen way. Macron, in some ways, represents the last real or illusory hope for change via reform. In the immediate aftermath of the presidential election, the French people appear willing to let that hope take shape and probably would endorse a new presidential majority. But the political establishment — essentially the ancient régime — can be counted on to defend its fiefdoms and ensure as best it can its long-term survival. It will do so either because of its conviction that Macron lacks the capacity to construct and manage a coherent majority, or simply out of inertia and the instinct of self-preservation.

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So what should we expect?

In all probability, there will be a relatively short observation period, assuming a presidential majority or coalition can be defined by September. Some reasonably stable transitional political environment, assisted by a resurgent Europe (if such an evolution is feasible), could take form. That would depend on a lot of hypotheticals converging, concerning Europe, the political class and the emerging populist movements on the right and left. If, however, Macron fails in his effort to turn the result of the legislative election into a viable tool of government, an ambiance of chaos will ensue.

Today’s calm may simply be like the eye of the hurricane. Unless a discernible path toward a brighter future is made clear, the discontent that already permeates an electorate that clearly didn’t plebiscite Macron’s program, even though they voted the man in, will gather force from both the left and the right. This will immediately provoke a further but more chaotic reconfiguration of the parties and movements.

This scenario of incremental chaos would be the best hope for the Front National and probably represents the strategy Marine Le Pen is now preparing. But her lower than expected result in the election diminishes her current leverage within a party whose future shape and orientation is unknown. Capitalizing on the revolt from the right, spurred by xenophobia and a taste for authoritarianism, Le Pen will now have to face the consequences of Mélenchon’s success. His personality and program have increasing appeal to the working class, neglected by the very elite that Macron and previous leaders and ruling parties represent. The Front National has successfully exploited that emotion over the past three decades, stealing vast swaths of voters from the formerly powerful Communist Party. Mélenchon appears to be reversing that historical tide.

If this were a play, we would still be in Act I. In the weeks leading up to the first round of the legislative election, the political société du spectacle — its parties and personalities — will offer observers drama and intrigue, bombast and emotion. Act II, preceding the second round, will be a phase of serious readjustment and repositioning. Act III, the somnolent summer months, will allow Macron to escape unwelcome media attention and engineer what he hopes will be a viable platform from which to govern at the rentrée, in September, when the nation returns from vacation. At that point, the internal tussles within the newly emerged and fundamentally fragile alliances will dominate Act IV. And then in Act V, sometime over the next six to 12 months, all the protagonists and antagonists will be on stage simultaneously, acting out a play for which no script exists since no author has had the capacity to pen or even envisage a climax, never mind a denouement.

It’s the English who muddle through, thanks to their stiff upper lip. With the French, however the first four acts of the drama finally play out, there will be two options for the fifth: comedy, which inevitably ends with marriage or possibly multiple marriages (new parties, new coalitions), or the blood and thunder of tragedy — aka revolution.

Or, who knows, the fifth act could be followed by the Sixth Republic.

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

Photo Credit: Lorie Shaull

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