When the President Is King

As the French opposition has failed to oppose Macron, can the resistance on the streets find its way back into the institutions of power?

By Daniel Nichanian

Tagged Emmanuel MacronFranceLaborpolitics

Frédéric Lefebvre’s reelection bid to the French National Assembly in June did not go quite as he had hoped. A member of the conservative party, The Republicans, he received just 14 percent of the vote in the first round, far behind Roland Lescure (57 percent), the candidate of French President Emmanuel Macron’s new party, La République en Marche. Despite this yawning gap, pursuant to election rules, their contest to represent the First constituency for French residents overseas (expats living in the United States, Mexico, and Canada) headed to a runoff.

Two days later, Lefebvre released a surreal statement claiming that he—as opposed to the candidate actually nominated by the president’s party—was Macron’s true supporter. “[Lescure’s] poster shows him alongside Emmanuel Macron thanks to a photo montage, even though they do not know each other but have only crossed paths,” Lefebvre complained. “I am the only candidate who knows the new president. My proximity with Emmanuel Macron is real. We often speak to each other. We work together. We share the same vision.”

Lefebvre ended up losing the runoff by 60 percentage points, having failed to persuade voters that the best way to support Macron was to oppose Macron’s candidate. But his strategy was merely a more brazen version of a broader phenomenon. The line between government boosters and opposition has blurred in France this year. This dynamic has shrunk the range of discernible political alternatives, and it has shifted the locus of partisan creativity—to borrow language from political theorist Nancy Rosenblum—unto other spaces than the country’s entrenched parties.

In the legislative elections, The Republicans and the Socialist Party—the two forces that have dominated French politics in recent decades—appointed many candidates who cast themselves as allies of Macron, even when their runoff opponent was from En Marche. In these runoffs, voters looking to voice disagreement with the new president had nowhere to turn. This dynamic reached its tragicomic apex in the Eighteenth constituency of Paris, where the runoff featured two candidates—one from the Socialist Party, one from The Republicans—both of whom printed “Presidential Majority” on their ballots to indicate that they backed Macron’s agenda. The former received Macron’s endorsement; the latter that of Édouard Philippe, the center-right prime minister tasked by Macron with implementing his vision.

When the electoral stakes are so muddled, what are voters to do? Turnout collapsed to a record low of 43 percent, and the number of spoiled ballots soared: 10 percent of all those who went to the polls for the runoff elections spoiled their ballots, up from 4 percent in 2012. Combine low turnout and spoiled ballots, and the situation is dizzying: Just 38 percent of the entire electorate went to vote for an actual person. Before 2017, that number had never gone below 53 percent.

The muddle only grew once the new National Assembly began its term. In the first round, the two core parties that make up Macron’s alliance (La République en Marche, and the MoDem, also a centrist party) had secured 32 percent of the national vote; in the ensuing runoffs, they won 61 percent of seats. These results were triumphs for Macron, to be sure, but they still meant that 39 percent of all districts (227 in total) elected a representative from ostensibly non-Macron parties. And yet only 67 of these lawmakers—just 12 percent of the chamber—ended up voting “no” on the parliamentary confidence vote that enshrined the Philippe government.

This was the most lopsided confidence vote of the Fifth Republic; not once since the current constitutional system was established in 1959 had so few lawmakers signaled their intention to serve as the institutional opposition.

It briefly looked like lawmakers who were elected as Republicans but who wished to be supportive of Macron would actually bring some transparency to the situation: They broke away from The Republicans’ main caucus to form their own parliamentary group. But this ended in a crisis of its own when the National Assembly elected a member of this Macron-friendly group to a leadership position that Assembly rules specify should be held by an opposition lawmaker.

What this means is that many of the people who are performing the electoral and institutional role of an opposition—and seizing the slots and exposure associated with that role—have simultaneously been working as satellite forces propping up Macron’s policy goals, if not his governing majority.

Yet there is an evident disconnect between this air of electoral and parliamentary consensus and the contentious character of the policies Macron has pursued. Much attention has been paid to his reforms to weaken collective-bargaining rights, deregulate labor protections, and eases layoffs; and Macron has pushed some of these deregulatory changes through executive action so as to appear more decisive. He is also proposing a tax plan that disproportionately benefits the rich. It involves repealing the wealth tax, a move that the economist Thomas Picketty has denounced as a “serious moral, economic and historical error” that neglects “the challenges of inequality that globalization has sparked.”

Having a sense of where one can turn to defend alternatives to an incumbent government and its platform is integral to democratic participation and accountability, and this is what is threatened by France’s dominant parties today. The work of political theorists Chantal Mouffe and Nancy Rosenblum is instructive here. They have both made powerful cases for entrenching robust avenues of conflict in democratic institutions and practice. In her 2008 book On the Sides of the Angels, Rosenblum describes partisanship as a creative process that “elevates a line of division into general political awareness.” Raising the divergences between people’s views and values to the level of an explicit conflict clarifies the stakes of decision-making; it draws out the problems that different people want to address; and it orients public affairs toward a struggle between forces that own their political judgments and priors rather than disguising these behind a post-partisan veneer.

If partisanship involves a “distinctive political identity that is self-consciously partial and accepts its status as a part,” as Rosenblum proposes, then approaches to governing that insist that they are beyond ideology—that their policies are only a matter of reasonable people coming together—walk back this acceptance. Macron and his self-presentation as coalescing all “responsible” political actors, as he puts it, fall into this type of approach, and the behavior of a sizable share of Socialist and Republican leaders comforts his strategy.

As a result, the task of animating political debate and of building a sense of what alternative governmental actions would look like has fallen on activists and politicians operating outside the traditional party structures, much like Macron did during his rise to the presidency.

Union-led protests have spread across France this fall. Unsubmissive France—the party of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who received 20 percent of the vote in the last presidential election—has tried to organize around these displays of militancy, and some of its leaders depict their aim in terms that map onto the idea of partisan creativity. One of the party’s 17 lawmakers recently told the magazine Marianne that this movement’s goal was to “propose an alternative society,” and a recent article in The Nation by Cole Stangler documents a set of counter-proposals crafted by a group of labor-law professors on how to update the labor code and address the pressures of the gig economy.

Even in light of this sustained activism, however, the blurring of the divide between government boosters and their institutional opposition poses problems.

First, until it reverses its disinterest in lasting alliances, the emerging opposition will have trouble increasing its electoral clout—and here I do not even mean alliances between the Socialist Party and the groups to its left. In the legislative elections, the parties that had backed Mélenchon’s presidential bid a month before (Unsubmissive France, the Left Front, and the Communist Party) went their separate ways. This had disastrous effect given the importance of finishing in the top two in the first round. In the Third constituency of Pas-de-Calais, for instance, Unsubmissive France and the Communist Party ran separate candidates; they, combined, received 28 percent of the vote but were both eliminated, making way for a runoff between the MoDem and the National Front. (Two candidates from the Socialist Party and the Green Party took another 12 percent.) In May, I wrote about the importance of a left commitment to coalition work. Unfortunately, these parties have not opened themselves to such work. A repeat of this would pose a problem in the midterm local elections, which could otherwise represent an opportunity for the left to gain a foothold with which to experiment with its proposals for an “alternative society.”

Second, the abdication of an oppositional role by substantial swaths of The Republicans and the Socialist Party helps Macron’s bid to cast dissent as parasitical rather than as worthwhile disagreement. “I will not yield in any way, not to slackers, nor to cynics, nor to the extremes,” he said in September about the country’s labor protests. (Protestors have since appropriated the term “slackers,” or “fainéants” in French, featuring it on banners inside square quotes.) In October, confronted by workers threatened with losing their jobs, Macron commented that “there are some who, rather than wreaking fucking havoc, would be better off seeking if they could get a job [at a factory 150 miles away] because some of them have the right qualifications.”

This trope isn’t anything new: Ruling parties often cast aspersions on the motives of protestors; they often appeal to the figure of a hard-working silent majority to portray movements as driven by greed, laziness, or ideological fury. But the existing dynamic is here aggravated by the unusual situation France is in currently, namely that the immense majority of institutional positions—national lawmakers, but also local officials—is in the hands of parties whose position toward Macron ranges from friendly to ambivalent.

In fact, Macron has played up the institutional legitimacy of his election against what he casts as the illegitimacy of protests. “I believe in democracy, but democracy is not in the street,” he told CNN in September. While this statement may seem out of tune with French political culture, it is a familiar move, particularly in the recent history of French politics, as it is elsewhere. But it takes a different guise, and is a graver threat, when many opposition officials are refraining from acting like an opposition, leaving few counter voices who can claim an institutional legitimacy of their own.

Read more about Emmanuel MacronFranceLaborpolitics

Daniel Nichanian is a post-doctoral fellow in political science and political theory at the University of Chicago.

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