Macron must look to build a Sixth Republic
To mark the rentrée politique – when French politicians return to work after what is now an ostentatiously short holiday – Le Figaro ran a spread designed to crush the morale of any member of the French political class preparing to confront the challenges of the year ahead.
It pointed out that La République En Marche – the president’s party – was fragmented and resistant to being organised, and the president himself has approval ratings in the proverbial tank.
The Front National – now renamed Rassemblement National – is, according to leader Marine Le Pen, who was thrashed in last year’s presidential election, facing bankruptcy after €2m of state funds were blocked following allegations that the party had fictitious employees on its payroll. The party is accused of misusing €7m over a period of eight years.
Les Républicains, under Laurent Wauquiez, are said still to be in a phase of “reconstruction” – in other words, they are far from being able to agree on their way forward, despite the collapse in M Macron’s popularity.
As for the Parti Socialiste, they are in such a state that they have decided not even to have a party conference, or université de l’été, this year.
There is a massive malaise among the French with their political class, as in many countries in the western world, not just in Europe.
It is why Hillary Clinton did not proceed to what she and her followers believed to be her rightful place in the White House; and why the British public disobeyed David Cameron and voted for Brexit.
It is why a government has come to power in Italy that threatens to upturn the apple cart with Brussels; and why populist regimes hold power in Poland and Hungary.
The novelty of populism has not worn off.
Against this mildly revolutionary background France looks staid and frustrated.
Turnout for the 2017 election was the lowest since 1969; four million people either put in a blank ballot or spoiled their papers; a third of those who voted, in a supposedly progressive western European country, voted for a far-right party.
The cast politicians available for the French to choose from consists largely of the usual suspects – people who have been around for years, worked their way up through the French political system, trained at the École Nationale d’Administration, and utterly disconnected from those they either govern or hope to govern.
No wonder, in the search for novelty, the electorate went for a largely unknown young politician last year, without a conventional party; and, equally, no wonder he has disappointed them.
There have been reforms – such as in education, making the classroom experience more rigorous and disciplined – and the trade unions have, to an extent, been faced down.
Yet M Macron has been less radical than promised. His conformity, not least in his attitude to deeper EU integration, does not inevitably play well among French voters. Many are still searching for something different. The trouble is, there is no unanimity of view about what they want.
Part of the problem with France is the concentration of enormous power in the executive, and especially in the hands of the president.
It has led to calls in recent years to found a Sixth Republic, in which the executive has less power and the people more – itself a sign of disenchantment with the political class.
Most such calls have come from the left, which feels chronically disobliged by how Charles de Gaulle fashioned the Fifth Republic in 1958: François Mitterrand spoke about doing it until he won 14 years in power under the system he had apparently hated.
Ségolène Royal made constitutional reform a substantial part of her ill-fated 2007 programme. At the last election, both the Parti Socialiste’s Benoît Hamon and La France Insoumise’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon promised to do it.
Yet those intellectuals who argue for a Sixth Republic see it as having more referendums and what one has called “the proletarianisation of minds”, to stop elites inflicting their views on everyone else: the old, fatuous, Mélenchon line that plays well with a small, aggrieved minority.
There is much talk of more rights – including expanding the right to strike, a little like offering an alcoholic the keys to the cellar and an electric corkscrew – but little of more duties.
Critics accuse President Macron of behaving monarchically, easy to do if one has the power of a French president; but it is grist to the mill of those who want a new republic that would restrict his powers.
There is a strong argument for reforming the French constitution; but, ironically, what is probably needed is something along the lines of the discredited Fourth Republic, with a powerful prime minister (something the Fourth Republic had more in theory than in practice), because of the volatility of France after the war, and a president who acts as a check and balance rather than Louis XIV.
The last thing, though, that France needs is constitutional reform that imposes more regulation and makes it harder for businesses to operate; the hard-left tail needs to stop wagging the moderate, progressive capitalist dog.
At the moment, President Macron gives an impression not just of being sporadically directionless, but of having surrounded himself with colleagues who are not always up to their jobs – fatal when he can do much as he likes.
A new republic should dilute power at the top of the governing class, but not allow the people to impose a form of anarchy whenever they will.
In a democracy, the public has to have the confidence to entrust the job of governing to an executive for four or five years, and leave them to it. If President Macron is as smart as he thinks he is, he will start the process of designing a constitution that inspires such confidence and, with it, re-ignites interest in politics – while he still has the chance.
Column by political commentator and historian Simon Heffer, who is also a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs