France is now at a crossroads, as evidenced by a number of symptoms. The traditional elites are discredited as never before, and are perceived by the majority of the population as “divorced from reality and the Earth”. At the same time, the institutions of the Fifth Republic are under question, and there are even calls to change the Constitution and establish a Sixth Republic, writes Valdai Club expert Arnaud Dubien.
On January 8 this year, French President Emmanuel Macron visited the tomb of former president François Mitterrand in the city of Jarnac in the southwest of the country in connection with the 25th anniversary of the death of the first socialist president of the Fifth Republic. It is worth noting that during Macron’s presidential term, two former French presidents have died: Jacques Chirac in September 2019 (president from 1995 to 2007), and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in December (in office from 1974 to 1981).
These events caused a certain nostalgia among many residents of the country, and prompted reflections on the French presidents of the 21st century: do they have a real scale for measuring presidents and what broke down at the turn of the century?
For 15 years now, the French have had the impression that their leaders do not correspond to their ideas about the head of state. It started with Nicolas Sarkozy, who, from the very beginning of his presidency, caused a storm of criticism about his style. One of the most sensational cases was during a visit to the nation’s largest agricultural exhibition, which is traditionally opened by the current head of state due to the importance of the industry, Sarkozy entered into a quarrel with a fisherman and ended the “conversation” by hurling expletives. This public foray showed to what level a person holding the post of president can sink, even despite the presence of numerous TV cameras. Nevertheless, the leadership qualities of Nicolas Sarkozy during the global financial crisis and the resolution of the conflict in Georgia have never been questioned.
There is the following opinion about the nature of the defeat of Nicolas Sarkozy in the elections in 2012: the French voted against him as a person, as someone with qualities that are unpleasant to them and which they are not ready to accept, and not against his actions as head of state.
Doubt among the French about the scale of the personalities of their presidents in the current century surfaced again in 2012, immediately after the election of François Hollande as President of the Fifth Republic and his arrival at the Elysee Palace. He called himself — literally — “the normal president”, thus, in fact, referring to Sarkozy as “abnormal.” Hollande played in contrast to Sarkozy, demonstrating calmness and restraint, democracy and even simplicity; he did not split or provoke society with his statements.
De facto, he became the weakest president in the history of the French Republic, and he himself abandoned the idea of being re-elected for a second term, realising his real position — none of his predecessors had done this.
Emmanuel Macron, elected in May 2017 at age 39, is the youngest head of France since 1848, when Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (later Napoleon III) became the first president of the Second Republic.
The coming to power of the young Macron raised hopes for change amid the discreditation of the political class in France. The French have already been disappointed by all the traditional parties and forces, both the right and the left, that have been leading the country in recent years. Against this background, Macron, who led the Forward! Movement, won, but he did not even mention the word “party”.
As often happens with inflated expectations, Macron quickly disappointed the French. It is advisable to recall the context of his election, because of which he was even called the “accidental president”. He was elected amid a scandal surrounding another candidate, who was considered stronger: François Fillon. At the same time, Macron had a narrow and fragile sociological base from the very beginning. In 2018, Emmanuel Macron faced his largest crisis, the “yellow vest” protest movement, after which criticism of his tenure as president was greatly intensified, and in the eyes of the people he became not a “president of renewal”, but a “president of the rich”. Since then, the level of dissatisfaction with his activities has been stable at the level of 2/3 of the respondents. In spring of 2022, his first presidential term ends, and his re-election is possible, but only due to the absence of a clear and worthy opposition leader.
Why has everything gone so poorly for the French presidents of the 21st century? Are they “doomed” to impotence and unpopularity?
The main explanation for the described disappointments is that they all remain in the shadow of the founder of the Fifth Republic, Charles de Gaulle. In 2020 alone, three anniversaries associated with him were celebrated: the 50th anniversary of his death, the 80th anniversary of the famous proclamation on June 18, 1940, and the 130th anniversary of his birth. All subsequent presidents have tried to imitate him and appeal to his legacy ... but not every president is given the chance to save the country, and de Gaulle saved it twice: during World War II and in 1958, when France was on the verge of a civil war against the backdrop of the Algerian war for independence ...
The next reason is the very Constitution of the Fifth Republic, which de Gaulle wrote for the personality of a president of his scale. This applies to everything from powers to the functioning of institutions. After Jacques Chirac, the dramatic gap between the qualities of the general and, so to speak, “presidents from the Constitution” on the one hand, and the qualities of incumbent presidents on the other became so sadly obvious that it began to undermine the normal functioning of all institutions in the country.
Another problem for French presidents of the 21st century stems from the contradictory nature of the French mentality. The French, despite the fact that in 1793 they sent Louis XVI to the guillotine, in fact did not reject the very idea of a king being the head of the country. Many lawyers describe the Fifth Republic precisely as a “republican monarchy”. At the same time, the same Frenchmen at other times are generally against the power vertical!
France is now at a crossroads, as evidenced by a number of symptoms. The traditional elites are discredited as never before, and are perceived by the majority of the population as “divorced from reality and the Earth”. At the same time, the institutions of the Fifth Republic are under question, and there are even calls to change the Constitution and establish a Sixth Republic. The French as a nation are disoriented by the fact that the two-century history of the country as a “nation-state” is being eroded both from below — and from above. At the top is globalisation and the delegation of many powers to Brussels, which undermines the country’s sovereignty, and at the bottom is the decentralisation of power and disunity due to the emergence of communities which are poorly integrated into French culture. The situation that the country has faced for more than a year, caused by the coronavirus pandemic, has only exacerbated this on-going process.
In the current context and with the prospect of presidential elections in the spring of 2022, the question arises: What qualities will the future French leader possess? It should be noted that ¾ of the French do not want a repetition of the Marine Le Pen — Macron duel, since they are not satisfied with such a choice.
The wave of degagism (literally the “throwing overboard” of the traditional French political class, of which Macron has become a symbol) has not yet passed and may carry away Macron himself. It is obvious that the current president is not a representative of the “new world”, as he positioned himself during the election campaign, but just a person of the “old world”. Is this his last term in the highest office in France?
It is clear that already now, against the background of the still continuing presidency of Emmanuel Macron, hopes for the arrival of a truly new leader have emerged in society.
A few touches to the portrait of the next president. Judging by the mood of the French and the criticism that sounded, he must have strong ties with the regions — no matter whether he is from the provinces or from Paris. Also, his programme should have a patriotic note with an emphasis on the return of a certain French sovereignty and a kind of scepticism towards the EU, while still not being “Frexit”. Sovereignty would mean a different balance, but not a way out from the EU — the French do not want to leave. There is a demand to re-industrialise the country, restore order inside and return to prestige on the world stage...