The demonstrators at Place de la République in Paris were chanting, weirdly, in Italian: “Siamo tutti antifascisti,” — “We are all antifascists.” In French, they targeted their chief enemy, the president: “We are here, even if Macron doesn’t want it.”
Watching them were ranks of massed riot police, who, in the French policing tradition, made no effort to mingle with the crowd and defuse trouble, but instead stood waiting for the moment to unleash their tear gas and batons. The crowd were waiting for it, too. “ACAB,” they chanted, the English abbreviation for “All Cops Are Bastards”. “A-ca-buh”, it came out in French.
Then someone set a dustbin on fire — the perfect Instagram image — and other demonstrators began filming it. They knew they were taking their places in a glamorous Parisian tradition, stretching from 1789 through 1944 and 1968. At last the police advanced, and people began chucking bottles.
France was in turmoil even before Emmanuel Macron’s unilateral decision last week to raise the minimum general retirement age from 62 to 64, after he couldn’t get it voted through parliament. In Paris, following a winter of rolling strikes, the metro is becoming a theoretical concept, while rats pick through heaps of uncollected garbage. Peak Paris was arguably reached last Saturday, with a demonstration for the rats. “NO, rats are not responsible for all that’s wrong with France!” said the organising group, Paris Animaux Zoopolis.
French anger transcends pensions and Macron’s high-handedness. There’s a generalised, long-term rage against the state and its embodiment, the president. After 20 years living here, I’ve become used to the French presumption that whoever they elected president is a moronic villain, and that the state, instead of being their collective emanation, is their oppressor. But Macron’s unpopular ramming through of a higher retirement age without a vote increases the risk that the French will follow Americans, Britons and Italians and vote populist: President Marine Le Pen in 2027. The far-right’s vote in presidential run-offs has gradually risen this century, to 41 per cent last year.
France can’t go on like this. It’s time to end the Fifth Republic, with its all-powerful presidency — the closest thing in the developed world to an elected dictator — and inaugurate a less autocratic Sixth Republic. Macron might just be the person to do it.
The Fifth Republic was declared in 1958, amid the chaos of the Algerian war and fears of a military coup. The constitution was written for and partly by Charles de Gaulle, the 6ft 5in tall war hero, the “man of providence” whose very name made him the embodiment of ancient France. He consented to return as leader if France muzzled political parties and parliamentarians. (He even disliked his own party, the RPF, the Rassemblement du peuple français.)
So the constitution created a strong executive, albeit not centred on the president. Clause 49.3 allowed the executive to over-rule parliament, and pass laws without a vote. Triggering the 49.3 allows opposition parties to file a no-confidence motion. If the motion fails, the law is considered passed. The pensions manoeuvre was the 11th time that Élisabeth Borne, Macron’s prime minister, had invoked 49.3 in 10 months in power.
In the 1958 constitution, the president was still a relatively modest figure, elected by about 80,000 officials. But in 1962, de Gaulle enhanced the president’s status: he would be elected by universal suffrage. As de Gaulle later explained: “The indivisible authority of the state is entrusted entirely to the president.”
The Fifth Republic’s governing philosophy became a sort of French-Confucian rule by the cleverest boys in the class, plucked from all ranks of the population. Prime Minister Pierre Mendès France’s father sold affordable ladieswear, President Georges Pompidou’s was a small-town schoolteacher, and President François Mitterrand’s the stationmaster of Angoulême. Typically at G7 summits, the leader with the highest IQ and broadest hinterland beyond politics is the French president.
The republic’s technocrats gradually extended their writ to the most isolated villages. Almost everything that moved in western Europe’s largest country was administered from a few square kilometres in Paris. The various waves of “decentralisation” since 1982 never got far. The guiding belief of Parisian technocrats, says the liberal writer Gaspard Koenig, is “étatisme”, statism. He notes that they are typically described as “servants of the state”, rather than of the people.
The deal became that the French would hand over a big chunk of their income to the state, and navigate an often nightmarish bureaucracy, in exchange for free education, healthcare, pensions and often even subsidised holidays.
Into the 1990s, the system more or less worked. France experienced its “Trente Glorieuses” — 30 glorious years of economic growth, from 1945 until 1975. It built Europe’s fastest trains, the TGVs; co-created the world’s fastest passenger plane, Concorde; it went on to invent the proto-internet, Minitel, which French people used to book tennis courts and have phone sex; it pushed Germany into creating the euro; and became an independent actor in world affairs. The all-powerful presidency enhanced France’s international standing: the administration spoke with one man’s voice, and foreign leaders always knew which French number to call.
The moment when the Fifth Republic lost its sheen was possibly the oil shock of 1973, since when the economy has mostly stagnated. Or perhaps it was April 21 2002, when far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen reached the run-off of the presidential elections. He lost to Jacques Chirac, but from then on, spurred by French disquiet over immigration and unemployment, there was a credible threat to the republic.
The disenchantment with the president showed in approval ratings. Mitterrand (president from 1981 to 1995) and Chirac (1995-2007) generally had ratings between 40 and 60 per cent, according to pollsters Kantar Sofres. But the last three presidents, Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande and Macron, have usually ranged between 20 and 40 per cent. Hollande’s rating in one poll hit 4 per cent (not a typo). These figures from the post-heroic age were too small for de Gaulle’s job. Few voters now even expect that the next president will be the national saviour. Although Marine Le Pen may become president, she too has lost her magic after years of scandals. It’s hard to attach fantasies to her today.
But the technocrats look tarnished too, especially since they have congealed into a self-perpetuating caste. Today’s ruling class consists disproportionately of white sons of the book-owning high bourgeoisie, who travelled together from Parisian Left Bank nursery school to Left Bank école préparatoire, where they crammed for exams for the grandes écoles, before acquiring their own Left Bank apartment. If they didn’t come from Paris, they generally moved there as teenagers, like Hollande, a rich doctor’s son from Normandy, or Macron, a neurologist’s son from Picardy.
It was as the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, a south-western postman’s son, had warned decades earlier: the French elite was reproducing itself. (And nobody mastered elite self-reproduction better than Bourdieu himself: all his three sons followed him to the most intellectual grande école, the École Normale Supérieure on the Left Bank, which trains social scientists.)
French technocrats spend their working lives in a few arrondissements inside the Périphérique, the ring road that encircles the Parisian court like a moat. They treat the rest of France almost like a colony, inhabited by smelly peasants who failed to absorb the Parisian culture they had been taught at school, and who vote far right or far left.
The fundamental facts of life outside Paris escape many decision makers. Jean-Pierre Jouyet, an École Nationale d’ Administration (ENA) classmate and right-hand man of Hollande, realised that large swaths of the countryside had no broadband internet only because he suffered the experience in his second home (his parents’ old house) in Normandy. He never got around to alerting Hollande. “In my defence,” he notes in his memoir L’Envers du décor, “nobody in government was interested in the subject.” When Macron decided to add a few cents to the fuel tax in 2018, he had no idea it would spark a months-long nationwide uprising by the gilets jaunes, the “yellow vests”, because he and the technocrats around him hadn’t grasped how much people beyond the Périphérique relied on their cars.
When things go wrong, the French blame the technocrats — and above all the president, who decides without consulting them. Ordinary people’s lives feel determined, down to the day they can retire, by a Parisian pretend meritocracy from which they were excluded at birth. Three-quarters of people who identify as belonging to “popular classes” say they feel the object of social contempt and lack of recognition, reports Luc Rouban, an expert on politics at Sciences Po, an elite Paris university. This is particularly galling, given the country’s promise, proclaimed from the facades of every post office and primary school: “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”. France isn’t the UK or US, where the power of social class or money is frank.
While the French population defy the technocrats, so the technocrats defy the population, diagnoses Chantal Jouanno, who has just served five years as head of the National Commission for Public Debate. French “deciders” often describe society as “conflictual, uncontrollable, irreformable”, she told Le Monde. Perhaps she was thinking of Macron’s jibe about “refractory Gauls”. On Wednesday he lamented, “We have not succeeded in sharing . . . the necessity of doing this reform,” as if the problem were the public’s inability to understand reality.
Since Macron became president in 2017, popular anger has targeted him. It was said of US President George HW Bush that he reminded every woman of her first husband. Macron reminds every French person of their boss: an educated know-it-all who looks down on his staff. He understood that Hollande had lacked presidential grandeur, and cast himself as “Jupiterian”; but most voters just saw a jumped-up little ex-banker dressing up as king. Even many who voted for him never liked him, nor felt that they were endorsing his platform, with its pledge to raise retirement ages. In both the 2017 and 2022 run-offs, the other choice was Marine Le Pen. The French president has gone in 60 years from “man of providence” to “not the devil”.
Macron’s brief employment at Rothschild inevitably generated antisemitic conspiracy theories among people who confuse today’s boutique Parisian investment bank with the Europe-straddling behemoth of the 19th century. A common jibe is that Macron is “neoliberal” or worse, “ultraliberal”: busy dismantling the French social safety net to benefit the shady forces of global capital.
The charge is ludicrous: France remains about the least neoliberal place on Earth. Government spending in 2021 was 59 per cent of GDP, the highest in the OECD, the club of rich countries. The perennial French fear of losing entitlements — above all, their 25-year retirements — betrays how good their lives are. On the downside, people pay so much to the state that many run out of money at the proverbial “end of the month”. The French net median income — €22,732 in 2021 — is lower than in the northern European countries that France likes to see as its peers.
Especially after the gilets jaunes, Macron has tried to rein in the elite’s privileges. Sarkozy and his former prime minister François Fillon have both been sentenced for corruption, though neither has gone to jail yet and both are appealing. A new sobriety has been imposed on parliament: gone are the days of deputies taking pretty interns for Château Lafite-fuelled lunches on unregulated expenses.
Macron’s ministers have been taken off dossiers where they have conflicts of interest — though that has highlighted the sheer number of these conflicts within the tiny Parisian ruling caste: Marlène Schiappa, minister of state for the social economy, had to hand in much of her portfolio after shacking up with the boss of a big mutual health insurance provider. The minister for energy transition, Agnès Pannier-Runacher, cannot touch matters involving petrol company Perenco, which her dad used to run, nor deal with the energy company Engie, where her ex-husband is a senior director. And Jean-Noël Barrot, minister delegate for the digital economy, cannot handle matters involving Uber, where his sister is a communications chief.
These concessions haven’t appeased the population. Nor has the melting-away of the longstanding French scourge of unemployment. It’s now at 7.2 per cent, its lowest since 2008, without Macron getting any thanks. Such is the anger over ramming through the new pensionable age without a vote that he might struggle to pass any laws these next four years, unless he dares to resort to ramming them through without votes again.
The fruits of the Fifth Republic aren’t so bad. But the system itself has gone out of date, says Catherine Fieschi, founder of the think-tank Counterpoint. The state’s autocratic nature helps explain why the French are so angry despite living relatively well. You could describe the republic’s workings without mentioning the almost irrelevant parliament. France today has three branches of government: the presidency, the judiciary and the street. If the president decides to do something, only the street can stop him — by stopping the country through protests and strikes. Street and president rarely seek compromise. One wins, one loses.
Historically, the trade unions control the street. But as they too lose relevance — Macron barely consulted them over pensions — the street has become increasingly violent and undirected, from the leaderless gilets jaunes to today’s burning dustbins. My daughter’s lycée is intermittently blockaded by pupils waving banners with slogans such as “Against Capital”. At a neighbouring school, a group of pupils and teachers are conspiring to turn their own blockade into a week-long occupation, a sleepover with fun activities including designing banners and repainting buildings. My daughter’s friend there plans to participate till Saturday: “Then I’ll take my weekend.”
This is no way to run a country. In last year’s presidential elections, far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon campaigned on a promise of a “Sixth Republic”. He wanted a new constitution that shrank the powers of the “monarch president”.
But the person best-placed to usher in the Sixth Republic is Macron himself. He’s a politician who hunts big game, notes Fieschi. He has already variously tried to charm Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, and to remake the French labour market, European defence and the EU. His schemes usually founder, but at least he aims high. A Sixth Republic is an idea on a Macronian scale. It could be his legacy, suggests Fieschi. It might just get the French train back on the rails.
On Monday his party, currently called Renaissance, sent an email to members headlined, “On the Reform of Institutions”. Members were invited to give their views on elections to parliament, the use or otherwise of referendums, and local powers. There was an open-ended question: “In a few words, on which subject(s) do you think it would be useful to organise a citizen’s convention?”
It’s a strength of France that it can update itself by revising its constitution — as it has done 24 times in the Fifth Republic. What might a Sixth Republic, or at least a reformed Fifth one, look like? Koenig recommends scrapping de Gaulle’s innovation of an elected president. That would deflate the role, and boost parliament’s status. Koenig also favours devolving powers to France’s 35,000 communes: in effect, local authorities. Surveys repeatedly show that the French have much more trust in their local representatives than in national ones.
Koenig made a symbolic run for president last year on a liberal platform of a shrunken presidency. Travelling around the country, he was enthused: many French people live in beautiful places, near mountains or beaches or sheep meadows. They are reasonably well off, eat well, and have the time to develop passions outside work.
They might function even better without some guy in Paris micromanaging their lives.
Simon Kuper will appear on Saturday April 1 at 2pm at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival to talk about the power of elites and his book ‘Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK’
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