Category Archives: France

Michel Rocard: The man who never became President

Michel Rocard: the Man who never became President

Few and far between are the politicians whose passing away (2nd  July 2016) have evoked such unanimity. Politicians from premier Valls to former President Sarkozy are falling over themselves to praise the wisdom, foresight and modernity of the former Socialist premier.  A national day of remembrance, held on 7th July, is a rare honour usually reserved for former Presidents. Michel Rocard can boast a powerful legacy, indeed,  in terms of providing an intellectual underpinning and political standard for French-style social liberalism, boasting a solid reformist record as premier (1988-1991) and leaving an enduring political legacy. Rocard also did much to contribute towards cultivating an economic culture within the left. As former premier Lionel Jospin observed in his tribute: François Mitterrand might have dominated Michel Rocard in political terms, but in view of the policies implemented under Socialist governments since 1982, Rocard won the economic battle’. [1].  

History may or may not retain the failure of his overarching ambition to be elected President.  He was, indeed, a presidential candidate, polling 3.61% as the PSU’s representative in the 1969 presidential election (narrowly short of the 5.1% for the SFIO’s Gaston Defferre). Ultimately, however, Rocard might be remembered as the man who never became President.  Rocard’s contest with Mitterrand for ascendancy within the Socialist Party was a defining moment of modern French politics- and he lost.  Control of the PS presidential candidacy in 1981 was one of the key prizes at stake in the bitter struggle between Mitterrand and Rocard for control of the Socialist party between 1978 and 1981.  The latter’s experience in 1978-1980 suggested the limits of external popularity as a lever to break the hold of the existing organisation on the party apparatus[2]. The strategy adopted in 1978-1980 (in short one of using external popularity to influence the choice of the party’s presidential candidate) failed then, but acted as a precursor to the primary movement which swept French political parties after 2006.

Michel Rocard was as an important personality in the history of the French left. He came to prominence as General Secretary of the small yet highly influential party, the Unified Socialist Party (Parti socialiste unifié – PSU), a party he led from 1967-1974. Though he eventually joined the PS in 1974, and led an influential group of supporters, he remained a marginal force within the Socialist Party, arguably even during his short period as First Secretary (1993-95). But the numerical inferiority of Rocard’s supporters within the PS must not disguise the influence of the movement. Rocard was the symbol for many of a specific tendency within the French left – the deuxième gauche  – which came to signify an alternative narrative of the French left to that focussed on capturing the commanding heights of the state and the economy.  The movement was strongly influenced by the legacy of Pierre Mendès France, the radical premier of the fourth Republic (1954-55) who set in motion France’s decolonisation (Morocco, Tunisia) and who first insisted on the need for economic rigorous economic management as a necessary condition for social progress.  As a student at Sciences Po, the young Rocard was active in the UNEF student union, and evenly briefly joined the SFIO, the Socialist Party he soon quit (in 1958) over the stance adopted to the Algerian war. Unlike many intellectuals, he never became a member of the PCF. Anti-colonialism was the cornerstone to this alternative left emerging to contest the SFIO. The Autonomous Socialist Party (PSA) was created in 1958 as a breakaway group from the SFIO; joined by various minor political clubs, it became the Unified Socialist Party (PSU) in 1960. After rising to national-level prominence after the Rencontres de Grenoble (1966), Rocard became General Secretary of the PSU in 1967, and led the movement through the tumultuous events and aftermath of May ’68. With the aim of renovating the left from outside of the main existing party, the SFIO, Rocard’s PSU was directly in competition with Francois Mitterrand’s Federation of the Democratic and Socialist left (FGDS (1965-68) and later with the Socialist Party (Parti socialiste – PS, captured in 1971 by Mitterrand). Mitterrand won that initial battle and many subsequent ones.

The fact remains that Rocard was not a player at the 1971 PS Epinay congress that redefined the landscape of the French left. He was never at ease with the central strategy of Union of the Left (the alliance between Socialists and Communists), but a version of this strategy was successful.  Rocard lost politically in the first instance, his route barred by a determined François Mitterrand, tactically Rocard’s superior. Much has been written about the relationship between Francois Mitterrand and Michel Rocard. Was this mainly a question of personal rivalries and style? In part undoubtedly. But it also concerned core issues of strategy (the Union of the Left and the necessity or not of allying with the PCF); of political and economic culture (the respective role of the State and the Market), of macroeconomic choices (for example the wisdom of using nationalisation as an industrial tool) and of the role of the party.   In many of these areas of controversy the Rocardian approach was evidence-based, evaluative and experimental.  In a prophetical landmark speech to the PS congress in Nantes (1977) Rocard warned the left not to deny the existence of economic constraints that would necessarily influence future government choices: “If the left is unprepared for power, if it refuses to recognise the importance of powerful constraints, if it refuses to admit the technical nature of many policy problems, then it will face failure” [3]

The deuxième gauche was classically formulated in Rocard’s speech to the same Socialist Party Congress of Nantes (1977). In this speech Rocard contrasted the two cultures that structure the French left, a statist, centralising culture and a more decentralising experimental one. The second left was initially associated with a Christian left (Left Catholics, but also protestants such as Rocard himself), as well as being a provincial left favourable to decentralisation and distrustful of a republican narrative of uniformity.  The second left was also a movement influenced by the ideas of May ’68, favourable to workplace democracy, social experimentation, the right to difference, local economic development and autogestion. [4] Above all, the second left demonstrated a certain suspicion towards the State and advocated a more systematic role for civil society and local authorities in policy-making.  Certain of the demands of this second left were clearly influenced by the spirit of the times (for example, ‘autogestion’, or workers’ self-management, a theme directly inspired by May ’68). But the basic message (a combination of rigorous economic management, social justice and a demand for transparency and honesty [‘parler vrai’] ) have withstood the passage of time and are more pertinent today than ever.  The heart of the Rocardian method lay in the duty to identify the challenges ahead, to explain and confront reality and to introduce a stronger economic culture within the French left. Hence, the caution he expressed over certain aspects of the 1981-83 reform programme (especially the Mauroy government’s nationalisations of 100% of leading industrial groups, the banking and insurance sectors, rather than taking a 51% controlling stake as argued by Rocard).  Other dimensions of the Mauroy government – decentralisation, workplace democracy –could claim a stronger filiation with the ideas of the second left.

Rocard will also be remembered as a consequential reformer, especially as a reformist Prime Minister from 1988-1991. In 1988. Mitterrand nominated Rocard as the man of the situation, when the PS failed to obtain an overall parliamentary majority in the ensuing parliamentary election.  Rocard was the first premier practising l’ouverture, a mainly unsuccessful attempt to broaden the bases of parliamentary support to incorporate elements of the centre and centre-right. Lacking a clear majority, premier Rocard was forced to rely on the most restrictive clauses of the 1958 constitution, notably article 49/3, which allowed the minority Socialist to survive for a full five year term. [5] All in all, Rocard was a reformist prime minister, with a robust policy record: the introduction of  a minimal income (revenu minimum insertion –RMI), a universal benefit extended for the first time to young people of 18-25; an ambitious programme of reform of the State (the programme of the modernisation of the civil service owes its origins to Rocard, as does the changed statute of the Post Office); and an  important fiscal reform (the creation of the general social contribution [contribution sociale générale –  CSG] to finance  new universal welfare benefits). Such policy activism aggravated an already conflictual relationship between Prime Minister and President (a staple of the fifth Republic) and a stoked a bitter personal animosity between the two men. In 1991, Mitterrand dispensed with the services of Rocard, though the prime minister remained popular.

Rocard’s career continued for two more decades after his resignation from Matignon. He was First Secretary of the Socialist Party, 1993-94; a Socialist MEP from 1994-2009, and served in various Commissions under President Sarkozy. But he never did succeed in imposing his presidential candidacy on the PS (the standard bearers being Jospin in 1995 and 2002; Royal in 2007 and Hollande in 2012).  By this most basic benchmark, he failed. But the legacy is a much more powerful one, in the form of a diffuse network of political and economic personalities, think tanks, ideas,  experts and putative inheritors (including premier Valls and  Industry minister Macron), who are jostling to be recognised as legitimate heir and inheritor. Michel Rocard was an important and influential advocate in the ongoing process of reconciling the left to the economy. He ought to be missed.

[1] Cited in Le Monde, 4th July 2016.

[2] Alistair  Cole (1989)  ‘Factionalism, the French socialist party and the fifth Republic: An explanation of intra‐party divisions’  European Journal of Political Research Volume 17, No. 1, p. 77-94

[3] Rocard’s speech is reprinted in La Nouvelle Revue Socialiste, 27, (1977), pp.69-76; p.70.

[4] Pierre Rosanvallon, L’age de l’autogestion,  Paris : Seuil, 1976 ; Pierre Rosanvallon and Patrick Viveret Pour une nouvelle culture politique  Paris : Seuil, 1977.

[5] Article 49/3 allows a government to stake its confidence on the passage of a parliamentary bill, effectively forcing deputies either to overturn the government, or accept the bill.

Jean-Louis Thiébault – Presidents without popularity: the cases of Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande

This is a guest post by Jean-Louis Thiébault, emeritus professor at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Lille, France

French presidents are elected by direct universal suffrage. Universal suffrage gives them a strong democratic legitimacy they need to govern. But the last two French Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012) and François Hollande (2012- …) experienced a rapid decline in their popularity just after their election. The fall was therefore premature. It lasted almost until the end of the presidential term. Faced with rising discontent, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande have adopted different strategies to win back their popularity: the first has tended to make his less flamboyant presidency; the second to get out of his initial posture of “normal president”.

The level of popularity of the new president had always been particularly high in the aftermath of the presidential election. It is the “state of grace”. But it is used to denote the moment of political life during which public opinion of a country is largely favorable to a new president who comes to power after an election. Journalists also often speak of the “100 days” as a privileged period for a new elected president (Duhamel and Parodi, 1982). The essential feature of the latest presidents, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, is the steady decline in their popularity, more or less rapidly after their election. In july 2007, a total of 65% were satisfied, what made of Nicolas Sarkozy the most popular president after taking office, with the exception of Charles de Gaulle. Nicolas Sarkozy failed to convert its electoral victory in presidential popularity. Elected with 53,06% of the vote, his popularity as president quickly became less important. The “state of grace” was consumed within six months. With 55% approval rating for his first month in office, François Hollande underperformed all presidents, with the exception of Jacques Chirac in 2002 (51%). But this high level of popularity did not last. In May 2008 and 2009, Nicolas Sarkozy got his most mediocre score since his election with 32% of confidence. From September 2009 to January 2010, the approval rating of the president remained below 30%. The year 2010 was characterized the reactivation of themes on security. But these issues have failed to mobilize public opinion. The end of 2010 was marked by a major rupture. Seduction has deteriorated. Political leaders and communicators can not maintain a media activism for several years (Neveu, 2012).

The evolution of the popularity of Hollande struck by its starting point, particularly low for a president who has been elected. With 55% of approval rating for his first month in office, he was worse than many of the other presidents. He was in a unique situation at the beginning of the term (Mayer and Tiberj, 2015). Six months after he took office, 35% of French people had confidence in François Hollande and 61% do not trust him. Discredit that struck the president was the result of a feeling of absence, or even of stagnation, during the summer of 2012, and dissonances in the government team. All this has contributed to what François Holland, with 35% of confidence, was the weakest president after six months in office. Francois Hollande also known soon a decline in public opinion. In September  and november 2014, his approval rating was 13%. It was the worst approval rating of a president. He faced even a strong sense of disappointment in his own electorate.

The purpose of this second part is to explain the reasons for the continuity of the declining popularity of the two presidents and especially the inability they found to remedy. The means used to regain a certain level of popularity failed. The key to this unpopularity lies not only in the crisis of results of economic and social policies, particularly on the employment front. It is also the result of a divorce between the president and much of its social base that is the real explanation of this strong presidential unpopularity.

The economic factors

The main structural factor of rapid weakening of the popularity curve of the two presidents was the weakness of the French economy, with social consequences in terms of unemployment, budget deficit and public debt. Upon assuming office, the last two presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande faced the consequences of the great economic and financial crisis that began in summer 2008 and which has particularly affected the US but many countries Europe such as France. This is Nicolas Sarkozy who faced the first onslaught of the crisis and has implemented actions to prevent the impact on the French economy. At the end of 2008, Nicolas Sarkozy has focused all its energy trying to limit the spread of the crisis to the whole financial and economic system. This activism on the national and international scene allowed him to stem the precipitous decline of its popularity curve. The management of the crisis during the EU presidency by France allowed him to regain 8 points in some months (41% in January 2009). Yet in early 2010, Nicolas Sarkozy got his most mediocre score since his election with 32% of confidence. The 2010 year was a year of social depression and distrust. For the first time since his election, his situation was delicate.

François Hollande faced also a strong sense of disappointment in public opinion. His disgrace was the result of mass unemployment, debt explosion, loss of competitiveness, a costly social protection system. He hoped to stabilize the unemployment curve. But to really reduce unemployment implied a growth which remained uncertain. Public deficits remained heavily excessive.

The political factors

Nicolas Sarkozy has quickly abandoned the idea of a rupture with the government style of Jacques Chirac, that he never ceased to invoke and which had contributed greatly to his success. Very quickly after the election, the word of rupture disappeared. The president did everything, decided everything. He was all over at the front line. He has developed new practices converging towards a new way of exercising power. From the first weeks of investiture of the new president, the new practices were evident. Formulas have been found to summarize the new exercise of power : “hyperpresidency” (Gordon, 2007), “omnipresidency”, “ultra-presidentialism”. It is this new exercise of presidential power, which has led to criticism. With Nicolas Sarkozy, the domination of the president reached a previously unknown intensity. The first months in office have given to see a real domestication of the prime minister. The choice of ministers was always essentially dictated by the president. The organization of the executive was marked by an impressive number of presidential speeches, announcing the launch of a given reform, a sending of several letters of mission, often not countersigned by the prime minister, to committees of ad hoc experts, the creation of a sort of parallel presidential government (Le Divellec, 2012).

François Hollande wanted to be a “normal president”. He wanted to enjoy the rejection of the highly publicized government style of his predecessor. Shortly after the beginning of the presidency, the one who wanted to differentiate itself from Nicolas Sarkozy has indeed failed. His behavior embodied the non-rupture with the mandate of Nicolas Sarkozy. In the first sixth month of his term, The unpopularity of François Hollande is due to the multiplication of errors, communication blunders, malfunctions and signs of amateurism. The new president had no experience of exercise of power. The explanation for this early unpopularity was often given as being that of a “hollow victory” of the president. He would have won against the demands of the country. The punishment for the incumbent president, Nicolas Sarkozy, would have weighed stronger than the rallying around the socialist candidate, François Hollande, and his program. A more plausible explanation is that as the “state of grace”, that lasts roughly the first hundred days of presidency, is not primarily due to a rally to the winner, to the fact that voters and the media would give a blank check to the candidate nominated by the ballot box. The “state of grace” is also mainly due to the attitude of the opposition. The losing party usually abandon the political battlefield, at least for a time, the outcome of the polls being both the selection of a new president and rejection of the personality, the program and the party of the opponent. But in 2012, right-wing opposition has not remained sluggish (Mayer and Tiberj, 2015).

The unpopularity of the president is not a new phenomenon. It results from excessive expectations that voters have vis-à-vis their president. The origin of these expectations is to look in the institutions of the Fifth Republic, increasingly unsuited to the reality of political life. The main electoral event, the presidential election, opposes candidates who have to believe they can, alone, start the economy, increase the influence of France in the world, combat social inequalities and fight against insecurity. Therefore, victory is priced at basically ambitious and unrealistic campaign promises. And this is unlikely to change, as the goal of the election is to elect a man (or a woman), able to find only solutions to all the problems of France (Grossman, 2014).

Personal factors

Personal factors are related to the behavior of the new president. But in this period of “state of grace”, the president may be led to commit his early mistakes that may have political repercussions, even if it is private business of the president. Thus Nicolas Sarkozy made several mistakes of behavior in the first days after his election, because he was looking for greater transparency of his way of life and his private life. François Hollande wanted to adopt a behavior more suited to the traditional conception of the presidency. But it has experienced rapid setbacks. Abuse of transparency and privacy explains the speed of the collapse of the popularity of the two presidents. For many analysts, Nicolas Sarkozy’s unpopularity was almost all the result of his behavioral style. The same type of judgment was brought for his successor. The unpopularity of François Hollande seems to be reduced in his way to embody the presidential office. Once elected, he appeared out of step with the weight of the office and the gravity of the situation of the country, too peaceful, too conciliatory, too careful or too timid to impose an undisputed leadership.

The international political factors

The predecessors had found in world affairs an autonomy from a domestic politics increasingly constrained. Faced with the growing impotence of the executive, beset by difficulties, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande sought in international relations and defense policy a tranquility that failed to tranlate in the polls. Neither the international crisis caused by Georgia in the 2008 summer, or the financial and economic crisis in the fall of 2008 that Nicolas Sarkozy faced, seriously reversed the inexorable process of decrease of presidential popularity. Yet Nicolas Sarkozy’s foreign policy was characterized by an omnipresence and hyperactivity. Foreign policy under the 5th Republic was always part of the “reserved area” to the president. But the concept has been pushed much further during the Sarkozy presidency. External relations have for four years been decided by the president himself. Personalization has been a key feature of this foreign policy. The foreign ministers were sidelined and forced to make up figuration (Meunier, 2012).

In January 2013, François Hollande decided to intervene militarily in Mali. François Hollande triggered the war for the first time during his term. According to the constitution, the president is the head of the military. It is the president who decides to project the military, and him alone. The rapid deterioration of the situation led the president to intervene. He understood all the political benefit there was to settle the more sustainably as possible in the position of military chief. After his first overseas operation, Francois Hollande has made halting a while, on the ground of French politics, his irresistible erosion in the polls, which resumed a few weeks later. He did not succeed in reversing his image, structurally in deficit in the eyes of French voters (Revault Allonnes, 2015; Boisbouvier, 2015).

In August 2013, eight months after Mali, the president was about to unleash a new war in Syria. François Hollande decided to punish the regime of Bashar al-Assad after the massacre with chemical weapons perpetrated on August 21, 2013 in the suburbs of Damascus. The red line that Barack Obama had fixed has been crossed. France was determined to hit Syria. But Barack Obama invoked the trauma of the recent interventions of the American military in Afghanistan and Irak, and the weight of the Congress to justify the need to quickly seek the vote of the latter. Francois Hollande took the opportunity to explain that he had not the slightest intention, for its part, to consult the French parliament. He stated that he had no reason to forego the opportunities offered him by the institutions of the 5th Republic. Due to US dropping, the Syrian crisis has resulted in a major setback for French presidency (Revault Allonnes, 2015a).

The impact of the attacks

In January 2015, after the attacks against Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher, there was a recovery in the popularity of François Hollande. The president had plunged with a popularity of 13% in September 2014. It was the lowest level. In December 2014, he goes back only to 15%. In January 2015, he rebounded to 20%. But this surge did not withstand the test of time. In June 2015, six months after the attacks, his popularity remains still at 19%. It has reconstituted only some part of his popularity. In the days and weeks following the attacks, the president and his ministers have made number of ads on urban  and education policies. But these tendencies lasted a few weeks at most. If the political balance of power was clearly less unfavorable, at least for a time, the president has not used it to launch major public policy projects. From the first hours of the post-11 January, it is mainly in the field of anti-terrorism, in all its facets, that was the replica of the executive (Revault Allonnes, 2015).

To regain a certain level of popularity, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande have used a new communications policy, a new institutional practice, and a rollback of certain public policies.

A new communication policy

The two presidents have taken some measures to regain their popularity, especially the type of communication policy. Indeed, just installed in the Elysee Palace, Nicolas Sarkozy has saturated the media space. He was regarded as a professional, with a strong ability to exploit the media. Moreover, Nicolas Sarkozy was surrounded by a strong communication team. The resources of the president also held the possibilities of influence at its disposal on a range of media, whose owners were close to him. These resources were serving the deployment of a strategy of intense activism, linking media events and announcements of reforms, so that the president had ever the initiation. It was a saturation and permanent campaign strategy (Neveu, 2012).

Early in his term, Sarkozy strongly rejected the theories of Jacques Pilhan on the need to adopt a more reserved attitude in communication (Le Débat, 1995). However, the 2011 year was marked by the return of the influence of the former adviser to François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, who died in 1998 (Bazin, 2009). After four years of exercising power, facing a heavily degraded image in public opinion and trying to conquer again an electorate disappointed by his behavior, Nicolas Sarkozy has managed to make a spectacular change. This strategic shift was imposed on him more than he really wanted. But he had no choice.

François Hollande refused to have an open communication policy (Pingaud, 2013). He wanted to stand out from its predecessor. He wished, in particular through the concept of “normal president”, to give up the temptation of the permanent spectacle of his predecessor. Uncomfortable with the television tool, Hollande has adopted a dated style of communication, therefore so inefficient. He decided therefore to adopt a more open attitude to communication under the influence of a new communication team with Gaspard Gantzer. Arriving at the Elysee Palace in April 2014, he is responsible for leading all presidential communications, for coordinating it after two years and half of difficulties with that of the prime minister, for advising the president on his activities and for working to “strategic management of his public speech” (Revault Allonnes, 2015b)

A new institutional practice

At the beginning of his presidency, Nicolas Sarkozy has developed new practices converging towards a new way of exercising presidential power, the so-called “hyperpresidency”. During the years 2010 and 2011, Nicolas Sarkozy agreed to review thoroughly his model of presidential power. These years were marked by a slight decrease in intensity of the presidential domination. This new practice was a tactic to correct a degraded popularity. The concept of « re-presidentialization» took the place of that of “hyperpresidency”. This term is used by the communication team to show that the president was now all concentrated entirely on his role as president. He gave the impression of wanting to take care of the the essential. Now the president no longer wished to be distracted by the turmoil of media or small events. The objective was clear: to erase the traces of the first years of the five-year period. This new option was associated with an organizational change. Sarkozy decided not to receive the leaders of his party (UMP) every Monday as he was accustomed. The “re-presidentialization” required him to take the height and to be no longer involved in affairs of the majority party. But Nicolas Sarkozy, whose approval rating was in the fall of 2010 at around 25% did not change the prime minister, François Fillon. A presidential mandate is structured around two elections. In the first part of the mandate, the new majority seeks to fulfill the promises of the candidate, and in the second it must value the work of the president. With a new prime minister, it is a new perspective with a new tone and new decisions. A change of prime minister in the 5th Republic started always a new dynamic.

François Hollande wanted to be a “normal president”. He wanted to enjoy the rejection of the « hyperpresidential » style of his predecessor. He has changed the prime minister. The electoral defeat of the 2014 municipal elections gave the final blow to the prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault. François Hollande appointed Manuel Valls as the new prime minister. The idea to give a little space for maneuver and movement structured his choice. The change of prime minister appeared as a way to recapitalize a deficit of public opinion. With Manuel Valls as prime minister, Francois Hollande made the choice to appoint a popular personality while the level of popularity of the president was at a very low level. It is clear that the arrival of Manuel Valls did not change the rule of a public opinion in permanent hostility, or prevent the continued fall of François Hollande in public opinion. He even reached in September 2014 the lowest level ever measured for a president (13%) (Lecerf, 2015). The change of prime minister has not convinced. In fact, the popularity of the prime minister has no more value electorally speaking. Apparently, voters well integrated the institutional rule,  implied by five-year term: the president is at the center of the game and the prime minister is not the fuse he was before 2002 (Mayer and Tiberj, 2015).

 The reversal of some public policies

The best example to explain the reversal of some public policies by Nicolas Sarkozy is furnished by fiscal policies  To rebuild its image over time and regain the favor of the electorate, Nicolas Sarkozy did not hesitate to revisit some decisions made at the beginning of his five-year term, as the tax shield. The tax shield was a key measure, maxing out at 50% of revenue payments to the state by taxpayers under the income tax. On the contrary, tax increases were decided by François Hollande in 2012 and early 2013, which had the effect of increasing the tax burden in 2014. In September 2013, he announced the end of the tax increases. This call for a tax break appeared as a turn to the one which he had announced during his campaign that he would reform tax in France. His intervention was expected after a 2013 summer where discontent against tax increases has been steadily gaining momentum, while blurring settled on the government’s ambitions in this area. The government was to find 6 billion of new taxes to balance the budget, but the finance minister had publicly expressed concern in mid-August 2013, a “tax ras-le-bol” in French. François Hollande acknowledged that in the fall of 2012, given the scale of deficits, an extra effort was requested to taxpayers. He thought it was time to make a tax break.

Conclusion. The downward trend in the popularity of presidents

The unpopularity of presidents has become an habit. One may wonder whether a president can long remain popular face heavy elements that make up the economic and social landscape of France in times of crisis: an unemployment rate of 10%, a decreasing growth, aggravated deficits and debt abysmal. This unpopularity of presidents characterizes a period during which threats strength the anxiety of French people and illustrates the difficulties of governments to curb the course of the economic and social crisis. Structural dissatisfaction seems to have set in French people towards their leaders. Since 2002, none of the presidents have been able to achieve a sustainable relationship of trust with the French voters. A component of this unpopularity notes the difficulty of leaders to address the main concerns of their citizens. This situation is analyzed in terms of another factor. Since the first oil crisis in 1973, there have always been more French people saying that in France, things “tend to go worse” than French people saying they “are improving.” Since 2000, it is common to have more than 80% of French people concerned about the evolution of their country. The unpopularity of the leaders cannot be dissociated from this growing pessimism of citizens. Something new has been added in 2012 to this pessimism. Usually, the election or even the re-election of a president was accompanied by a burst of confidence. This was the case in 2007. Nicolas Sarkozy’s victory then caused a surge of optimism. The negative judgment have focused on another form of breakdown, the loss of illusions by public opinion on the expected benefits of alternation. The lack of enthusiasm for Francois Hollande is also a lasting consequence of the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy.

Given the growing interdependence of France vis-à-vis its European partners, the promises of presidents quickly prove unsustainable. Indeed, the French president can neither revive growth by itself or reform the international finance and, even less, the European treaties. Disappointment is then up to the ambition of the promises. For twenty years now, presidents have a significant popularity at the beginning of their mandate, but this popularity plummets rapidly. Above all, contrary to what may have happened to previous presidents, the last two presidents do not rely and they remain weak. But the institutions are still solid (Grossman, 2014)


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« L’écriture médiatique. Entretien avec Jacques Pilhan », Le Débat, no 87, novembre-décembre 1995, 3-24.

Comoros – Presidential Election Threatens Fragile Stability

Dubbed the ‘coup-coup islands’ due to a legacy of violent government takeovers, the small African island nation of Comoros (population: 800.000) has long been one of the most politically unstable countries in the world. Upon attaining independence in 1975, one of the four Comorian islands – Mayotte – voted to remain part of France, and in 2011 became a French Overseas Department. While the French incorporation of Mayotte was considered illegal by the United Nations, the significantly higher standards of living on this island stimulated secessionist aspirations on the two smaller Comorian islands – Anjouan and Mohéli – which also desired to be released from the largest island of Grande Comore, and to be reunited with France. After nearly three decades marred by successive coups, violent uprisings, and enduring economic malaise, in 2002 a unique electoral system that provides for a rotating presidency between the three islands was adopted. Every five years, a president from a different Comorian island is elected for a single term. Presidential elections are held under the French two-round system, but in the first round only voters on the island delivering the next president can participate. The three candidates with the most votes take part in a second round, in which all eligible Comorian voters can cast a ballot.

The first elections under the new system were won by Azali Assoumani from Grande Comore, who ruled the archipelago until 2006. Subsequently, presidents were elected from Anjouan (2006 – 2011) and Mohéli (2011 – 2016). While the economic situation on Comoros remains dire, and political violence has not been completely eradicated, the fact that all presidents elected under the new system were able to complete their term in office is widely regarded as a considerable achievement.

On 21 February 2016, the first round of a new presidential election was held on Grande Comore, which according to the constitution would deliver the next president. The outcome was close, and the top three candidates all obtained between 14 and 18 per cent of the votes. Among them was former president Assoumani, who in 1999 had staged a successful military coup, and contemporary vice-president Mohamed Ali Soilihi, who emerged as the winner of the first round. The second round of voting, which was held on 10 April 2016, again resulted in a very close outcome: Assoumani was declared the winner with 40,98% of votes, while Soilihi finished second with 39,87% of votes. While international observers considered the election to be free and fair, and the UN Secretary General congratulated the Comorian people with a peaceful election process, numerous irregularities were reported from the island of Anjouan, among which broken ballot boxes, accusations of ballot stuffing, and acts of violence. As a result, the Comoros constitutional court ordered a partial re-run of the election on this island, which occurred on 15 May 2016. Only 2% of the Comorian electorate was allowed to participate in the re-run, which did not produce a significantly different result: Assoumani remained the winner with 41,43% of votes, while Soilihi remained a close challenger with 39,66% of ballots cast.

The recent Comorian presidential election once more underscored the fragile political situation in the archipelago, which remains plagued by inter-island hostilities and separatism. The lack of a single Comorian identity, as well as the divisive effects of the integration of Mayotte into metropolitan France, continue to undermine economic and political progress in the island nation. Economic growth dwindled from 3,5% to 1% over the last two years, and while the new political system has put an end to the series of violent coups, it has not solved the formidable challenges and obstacles that continue to beset the Union of the Comoros.

France – 2016: President Hollande’s annus horribilis

2016 is turning out to be President Hollande’s Annus horribilis.  The incumbent President’s misfortunes in 2016 appear compounded by the quickening pace of political decline, as the 2017 presidential election approaches. As this blog entry is written, French President François Hollande appears to face an impossible dilemma: to be the first President not to stand for re-election, or to stand as candidate with the danger of not reaching the second round.[1] Hollande’s predicament might be interpreted in terms of a series of inappropriate responses to specific events, in which case the Socialist President is a victim of the normal rhythms of extraordinary times. There are any number of key events to choose from: we consider the aborted constitutional reform of 2016 below.  Hollande’s descent might also be interpreted as the culmination of a series of design faults: the original sin of the mode of election in 2012; the result of a particular style and discourse; the unintended consequences of the political responses to the terrorist attacks on 2015; the longer term impact of economic crisis and the failure to bring down unemployment. All of these factors recall the weak political, partisan and sociological basis of support from the outset. To understand Hollande’s predicament we need thereby to mix levels of analysis: to capture the structural, partisan and political bases of the current presidential weakness, as well as individual responses.

Hollande’s original sin lay in the manner of his election as President in 2012. His 2012 presidential campaign was fought in large part as an anti-Sarkozy referendum, designed to preserve an early opinion poll lead that was mainly built upon a popular rejection of Sarkozy. A majority of second round voters (51%, compared with 31% in 2007) declared that they had voted negatively (for the candidate best placed to prevent the less preferred candidate from being elected) and only a minority declared they had voted positively for their candidate (49%, compared with 69% in 2007). [2] His candidacy was based on his strategic political positioning as being a ‘normal’ candidate and president, a style deliberately adopted to be the counterpart of the flamboyant Sarkozy. Once elected President, however, Hollande experienced a rapid descent from popularity, much faster and more thorough than any previous president. The failure to act during the first 100 days represented a lost opportunity.  He was trapped by the frame of normality during a period of economic crisis; the attraction of a “normal” President who ignored the economic tempest in a wave of enforced optimism soon wore off.   For the 2012 electoral series was fought in a context of economic crisis; voters were almost as pessimistic about the ability of Hollande to ‘improve the situation of the country’ (26%), as they were about Sarkozy (25%). [3]  Hollande’s claim to normality had also involved a commitment to keep his private life out of the public domain, but the public jealously displayed by Valerie Trierweiler, Hollande’s erstwhile partner, destroyed this aspiration very early on. Hollande’s personal judgement was then called into question by a succession of scandals involving leading figures of the Socialist-led government. By far the most important scandal was that of Jerome Cahouzec, the first Budget Minister whose reputation for integrity was destroyed by evidence of a secret bank account in Switzerland (despite his repeated denials).

I have argued elsewhere that the Hollande presidency has been undermined by the weakness of a consistent legitimising discourse[4]. It is unclear to many what Hollande represents. There is a weakness of story-telling, the construction of a coherent narrative to describe and justify governmental action. Is Hollande a traditional social-democrat? There was certainly a sustained effort during the Ayrault premiership (2012-2014) to revive a social-democratic discourse, and to give substance to this by using social-democratic instruments such as the annual social conference between the government, the business associations and the trade unions; the principle of negotiated solutions to labour laws and training, and the state’s involvement in attempting to reduce unemployment by subsidised jobs for young people. The core problem lay in the inability to resolve the most intractable policy issue of them all, unemployment. Hollande’s commitment in 2013 to ‘reverse’ the rising level of unemployment provided a hostage to fortune. By early 2016, no major diminution of the unemployment rate had occurred, with France comparing unfavourably with her main EU partners and competitors. Hollande did not convince as a social-democratic president, not least because of his inability to resolve this most intractable problem of domestic policy.  Was he more successful as a ‘social-liberal’? Hollande began the ‘social-liberal’ turn in 2013 (when a governmental programme, the CICE, first reduced various business taxes) faced with evidence of France’s sluggish economic performance and the tense relations with the business community. The main programme was the pacte de responsabilité in January 2014: 50 billion euros of reductions in business taxes, against the (unfulfilled) expectation that firms would begin hiring workers again. If the social-liberal orientation was determined by Hollande’s choices, the responsibility for justification lay with premier Valls (from April 2014) and increasingly from the ambitious minister of Finance Emmanuel Macron, who steered his own liberalisation programme in 2015.

At the end of December 2015 Hollande obtained some of his best poll ratings since taking office[5]. Hollande has enjoyed the most success with a Republican narrative, centred on education, citizenship, the role of France in the international arena and the Nation. In 2015, Hollande appeared as the embodiment of national unity against the internal and external terrorist threat. The right tone was struck, in the mass rallies of January 11th 2015 in defence of the Republic after the attacks on Charlie- Hebdo and in the convoking of Congress in Versailles, just days after the November 13th outrage.  In his address to the Congress, Hollande received a standing ovation. He also made a dual commitment: to reform the 1958 constitution to provide a firmer footing for the state of urgency[6]; and to deprive terrorists of French nationality (initially those with dual nationality, later on all French nationals). These two related but distinct articles were imagined in order to provide a firm response to terrorist attacks, but also to embarrass the political right into supporting constitutional reform (Hollande’s previous attempt to amend the constitution, to include the reform of regional languages, had failed in 2015 due to the obstruction of the Senate).

Once the dust of the Versailles speech had settled, the dual offensive was doubly offensive to the ‘usual suspects’ (the frondeurs, Martine Aubry, the Socialist mayor of Lille, the ‘left of the left’), but also more generally to Socialist deputies, if not to broader public opinion (which supported the position adapted by the executive on both counts). The proposal to refer to the state of urgency in the 1958 constitution was criticised by some lawyers as providing a constitutional basis for what is by definition an irregular process[7], but these arguments left public opinion indifferent. Hollande’s manoeuvre was designed to rally support from across the political spectrum, in particular from the Republicans whose approval would be necessary to allow any constitutional reform. Here was a potentially popular reform, albeit one that divided constitutionalists, aroused opposition to some of its elements from the Constitutional Council[8] and appeared to strengthen administrative circuits and the police at the expense of legal authority and the judges.  The article would have consecrated the power of the French president to determine what constitutes a state of urgency and minimise parliamentary involvement.

The controversy aroused by the State of emergency was as nothing compared to that of the proposal to deprive terrorists of their French nationality should they be convicted of terrorist crimes. The initial proposal was to remove French nationality from bi-national citizens convicted of terrorist attacks. Faced with firm opposition, especially from Socialist deputies, an amended proposal was introduced whereby any convicted terrorist could be deprived of their French nationality, potentially creating apatricides. As Patrick Weil pointed out, there were problems with each of these positions: to deprive only bi-nationals of their French nationality was tantamount to discrimination and to creating two classes of citizenship (against the equality inherent in the Declarations of the Rights of Man)[9]. But the proposal to remove French nationality from any convicted terrorist might leave certain citizens without a nationality. If the first proposal clearly went against the canons of French republican equality, the second one was manifestly contrary to international jurisprudence and law. After four months of high drama, the constitutional reform bill eventually fell in March 2016, once the Senate refused to accept the terms of the constitutional reform finally approved

in the National Assembly[10]. The saga further alienated the left (including losing the Justice minister Christian Taubira, the symbol of left-wing authenticity within the Valls government) without rallying the right in support of the constitutional change. Eventually both measures fell victim to the decision to abandon the constitutional reform. The real fault was a political one. This idea of removing nationality from terrorists has long been associated with the UMP (Sarkozy in 2010) and even the National Front (Front national – FN), whose spokesperson declared the FNs agreement with the proposal.   The political damage caused by this saga has been considerable for the lack of any positive outcome. The response was to divide further an already emasculated left, without opening up a viable electoral alternative.

One of the core constituencies supporting Hollande in 2012 was that of the youngest age cohorts (18-24, 25-34). Shortly on the heels of the constitutional saga, the proposed El Khomri law revealed how difficult it can be for any government, including a Socialist-led one, to maintain a constructive relationship with young people on the verge of entering the labour market. The merits of the proposed El Khomri law (which initially set out to reform [modestly] the labour code, to liberalise [somewhat] the conditions under which firms could lay-off workers and to limit job-loss payments) might be debated. The employer’s association, the MEDEF, has long argued that the French labour code is impossibly complex and has posited a clear link between excessive regulation and the stubborn refusal of the unemployment curve to begin its movement downwards. In drafting the initial project, premier Valls listened closely to be MEDEF (and rather less closely to PS deputies or traditional support organisations such as the student union, the UNEF).  In rather typical style, weak consultation produced a social movement which, in turn, led the government to abandon key elements of the proposed legislation. Rather like the Macron Law in 2015, the proposals that eventually emerged fell far short of their initial ambition.  Perhaps the Socialists have nothing to expect from the MEDEF. But the rupture with ‘young people’ was the real downside of this series. The most contentious issues were abandoned before the law had been introduced in the Council of Ministers. And yet this climb-down was not enough to put the genie of France’s youth back into the bottle, as the mobilisation against the Loi el Khomri was transformed into the nuits debout movement, staring in the Place de la République in Paris and extending outwards to the French cities shortly after, the symbol of a divided left and a youth in revolt, renewing with a classic register (social protest) aimed against the incumbent socialist government. The mobilisation of students and school pupils against the proposed El Khomri Law recalled that one decade earlier against the First Employment Contract (Contrat premier emploi – CPE) of de Villepin government. The merits of the case need not be reviewed extensively here. That the dual labour market might be responsible for the high level of youth employment does not figure as part of the mental map of the protesters against labour market insecurity. But the management of the Valls- Hollande tandem was clearly defective. Neither the minister, Myriam El Khomri, nor premier Valls was able to reassure and satisfy a youth fearful of labour flexibility and desirous of the full time permanent contracts that their parents enjoyed.

Faced with these setbacks, the latest batch of opinion surveys provide little solace for Hollande. The third round of the CEVIPOF’s 2017 Barometer casts doubt on Hollande’s personal judgement. Even more recent surveys have suggested that Hollande, as PS candidate, would not reach the second round and, if he did, would be defeated by Marine Le Pen[11]. These findings are incredibly damaging, as they undermine Hollande’s attempt to position himself as Father of the Nation, defending the Republic against its enemies. In this fin de règne there is new evidence of lèse majesté: in the form of the ambitious political positioning of Emmanuel Macron, the new darling of the polls on the left. Though Macron owes his political ascension to President Hollande (Assistant General Secretary of the Elysée, named as Finance minister in April 2014),  in early April 2016 the ambitious énarque announced the creation of a new political movement, En Marche, explicitly aiming to  transcend left and right. Whatever the fortunes of this movement (there have been others), it is difficult to see how it cannot be experienced as a form of treason by Hollande, protector and promotor of the ambitious Macron as a counterweight to premier Valls and a bridge to the business world.  Valls, trapped by solidarity with Hollande and by co-management of the executive for over two years, is no longer the young reformer anxious to sweep aside the existing Socialist order. Macron is much less constrained and more likely to ‘kill the father’.

These events tells us something about Hollande’s presidential style. The official optimism of public speeches throughout the Hollande presidency was in stark contrast with popular perceptions of failure. The 2012-2017 presidential term has been defined in part by a style that posits a preference for formal consultation over open confrontation. There is much to be said for the art of refined compromise, especially after the fractures of the Sarkozy years.  Hollande’s celebrated capacity for synthesis was developed over years as First Secretary of the Socialist Party, and involved an intimate knowledge of PS networks, and of the changing centre of gravity within the party.  If the advantage is flexibility, and the ability to adapt to a changing centre of gravity, the downside is the challenge of consistency, credibility and coherence. Ultimately, Hollande’s reputation has suffered from the ambiguities of the 2012 campaign, from the lasting impression of a lack of coordination within the executive and in relations with the Socialist-led majority and, above all, by perceptions of a poor policy record, marked notably by the failure to control unemployment.


[1]  ‘François Hollande dans une position toujours plus difficile avant la Présidentielle’   IPSOS- CEVIPOF-Le Monde, 30 March 2016, In the third wave of the CEVIPOF’s Barometer, by far the largest rolling survey with over 20,000 respondents, Francois Hollande was in third position whether the Republican candidate was Alain Juppé (14%), or Nicolas Sarkozy (16%). Hence, the incumbent President would be eliminated on the first round.

[2] Jaffré, J. (2012) ‘Ce que signifie le vote du 6 mai’, Le Monde, 5 June.

[3] Op. cit.

[4] Cole, A. (2014) ‘Not Saying, Not Doing:  Convergences, Contingencies and Causal Mechanisms of State Reform and Decentralisation in Hollande’s France’ French Politics 12 (2): 104-135.

[5]  In an IFOP-Fiducial poll for Paris Match and Sud Radio, 27-28 November 2015, Hollande obtained 50% of positive opinions. Cited in Le Monde, 2-4 January 2016.  By 26 April 2016, Hollande was credited with only 17% of favourable opinions (83% unfavourable) in an ODOXA survey for L’Express.

[6] The state of urgency, ruled by a law dating from 1955 at the height of the Algerian crisis, is not to be confused with the state of emergency (Article 16), which allows the President to suspend the normal operation of the Constitution.

[7]  Beaud, O (2016) ‘Ce projet de réforme constitutionnelle est inutile et inepte’, Le Monde, 2 February.

[8] In response to a Question prioritaire de constitutionalité, (QPC) the Constitutional Council demanded a much stricter control of the conditions under which computer hard disks could be copied, which emptied the measure of much of  its operational effectiveness.

[9] Weil, P. (2016) ‘Le principe d’égalité est un pilier de notre identité’, Le Monde, 8 January.

[10] Bekmezian, H. (2016) ‘Le Sénat enterre la décheance de nationalité’, Le Monde 19th March ; Le Monde (2016) ‘les principales réactions à l’abandon de la réforme constitutionnelle’ Available at : (consulted 27 April 2016).

[11] For example, according to the IFOP – Fiducial poll (17/04/2016) for i-tele, Paris-Match and Sud Radio, Le Pen would win a (very hypothetical) Le Pen-Hollande run off in 2017 by 53% to 47%

Jean-Louis Thiébault – President Hollande’s cabinet reshuffle

This is a guest post by Jean-Louis Thiébault, emeritus professor of political science and former director of the Institut d’Etudes Politiques, Lille

In France, the government reshuffle is a weapon in the hands of the president. It can have three objectives: a change of personnel, the enlargement of the majority, or a change in policy (Editorial by Alain Duhamel on RTL, February 11, 2016). The formation of Prime Minister Manuel Valls’ third government on 11 February 2016 aims to meet all three goals. However, it fails to bring together all of the left and fails to guarantee that François Hollande will be the sole candidate of the left at the 2017 presidential election.

The change of personnel notably concerned Ministers Laurent Fabius and Sylvia Pinel. The former left the Foreign Affairs ministry to become president of the Constitutional Council with his ministerial portfolio being given to former prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault (May 2012-April 2014). The latter left the Ministry of Housing and Sustainable Habitat to becomes executive vice-president of the Languedoc-Roussillon-Midi-Pyrénées region. Other ministers were also replaced, yet the widely touted departures of Marylise Lebranchu from the Ministry of Decentralization and Public Service and Fleur Pellerin from the Ministry of Culture and Communication did not take place. However, the prior resignation of the Justice Minister, Christiane Taubira, should be noted. She resigned because of her opposition to a plan to strip French-born terrorists of their nationality. The resignation took place on 27 January 2016, with Taubira being immediately replaced by Jean-Jacques Urvoas. The appointments mark the desire to create a strong ministerial group in the fight against terrorism.

The second objective was the expansion of the majority by rebalancing the distribution of men and women in the government, but also by the entry of three representatives from the environmentalists and the centre-left. The new government has 38 members: 18 ministers and 20 state secretaries. There is a strict gender parity with the same number of women and men among both ministers and secretaries of state. The entry of the environmentalists came with the appointment of the national secretary (leader) of Europe-Ecologie-Les-Verts (EELV), Emmanuelle Cosse, as housing minister, and two dissident environmentalists, Vincent Place, a senator, and Barbara Pompili, a deputy and former co-chair of the EELV parliamentary group. The latter two ministers had already broken with EELV for some time. However, the appointment of Emmanuelle Cosse smacks of poaching from EELV. The new government is not the result of a coalition agreement. There is a return of the greens, but there was no substantive discussion on policy, no programmatic agreement, no concessions made, no compromises accepted, apart from a “consultation” on the construction of the proposed airport at Notre Dame des Landes, near Nantes, in Loire-Atlantique. In a statement on 10 February 2016 EELV stated that the conditions were not ready for a return of environmentalists to the government. Entitled “About the reshuffle”, the text stated that “EELV has not been contacted, but that if an offer” were to be made to the whole movement “by the executive, the direction of EELV would study it “with responsibility”. EELV added: “environmentalists note that if the conditions were no longer in place to advance ecology in April 2014 with the departure of Cécile Duflot and Pascal Canfin from the government, the same remains true today “. The statement mentions no names, but everyone understood that it was aimed at Emmanuelle Cosse. She immediately stepped down as national secretary. David Cormand, the party number two, was chosen as her replacement prior to the EELV congress in June 2016. In short, EELV was against the appointment of Emmanuelle Cosse to the government.

The third objective is the desire to find a new balance with a view to the 2017 presidential election. The new government has been appointed with the presidential campaign in mind. The choices made by the president were not targeted at public policy issues, but to rebalance balances an exhausted government majority. President Francois Hollande has named people who can put out potential political fires in the majority (David Revault Allonnes, “Derniers colmatages présidentiels avant 2017”, Le Monde, February 13, 2016). The most important appointment is that of the environmentalists in order to torpedo any attempt an ecologist candidacy in the 2017 presidential election, which would be very detrimental to him. However, EELV is now free to radicalize even more, making life difficult for the government and raising the prospect of an alliance with the left-wing opposition to to the president. The other appointment is that of the president of the left-center Radical Party (PRG), Jean-Michel Baylet. Again, the tactical aspect is not absent. The appointment of the chairman of PRG allies the party securely with the ruling majority, while removinging the spectre of a left-center radical candidate in the 2017 presidential election.

In the final period of his five-year term, Francois Hollande has once again decided to promote the idea of a “responsible left” and to distance himself from the “protest left.” He understands that he cannot expect anything from either the left wing of the Socialist Party (PS) or from the left of the left.  His opponents inside the PS, the “rebels”, aim to weaken him, to build an alternative project, and to hold a primary election that is open to the left as a whole.

Jean-Louis Thiébault, emeritus professor of political science and former director of the Institut d’Etudes Politiques, Lille, France (1997-2007). He works on comparative political analysis of emerging countries, presidential leadership, and presidential parties.

Alistair Cole – The French President: Changing Times Afoot, Challenging Times Ahead

This is a guest post by Alistair Cole, Sciences Po, Lyon, France (


The French presidency is sometimes presented as a timeless institution, a successful office that has restored stability (after the precarious disequilibrium of the Fourth Republic) and provided the model of an original hybrid, the semi-presidential regime, that has been subsequently been imitated in several other countries. Stability has been celebrated by incumbent French Presidents, from de Gaulle (who lauded the presidency as the alternative to a return of chaos) through to Hollande (who evoked the stability of the institutions in his attempt to survive a period of unprecedented unpopularity from 2012 to 2014). President Mitterrand’s injunction to let time do the work (‘donner du temps au temps’) exemplified the timeless quality of the presidency admirably. Beneath this apparent stability, however, the French presidency has evolved considerably over time, to the point that in 2012, at the end of Sarkozy’s (first) presidential term, I asked the question: was the presidency the same institution under Sarkozy as that of his Fifth Republic predecessors (Cole, 2012)?

In one obvious sense, the French presidency has been forced to accompany time. France in the 1960s was not the same as France in the mid-2010s. De Gaulle’s leadership was crafted in the context of regime change, decolonization, social and economic take-off, the formative stages of European integration and the stabilization of the cold war that allowed the General to develop original nuclear and foreign policy doctrines. By the time of Hollande’s arrival in office in 2012, the political institutions, though contested by much of political and public opinion, had proved their flexibility. Decolonisation still provoked occasional controversies but only as part of France’s historical heritage. The European Union had expanded from 6 to 27 members and the cold war was a distant memory. The specific circumstances of the 1960s that encouraged de Gaulle to craft a distinctive leadership role no longer prevailed in the 2010s.

The key paradox to be addressed in this piece is whether the French presidency is still fit for purpose, given that the core institutional traits of the office were shaped in a period far removed from the challenges facing France in 2016. Using various configurations of time, I consider the goodness of fit between the French presidential office and contemporary memorial, institutional and policy timescapes. Evidence is provided from all stages of the Fifth Republic, but special attention is afforded to the last two presidential incumbents, Sarkozy and Hollande.

Time as commemoration

President Hollande has had more than his fair share of commemorations, from the 100 years of the outbreak of World War One in 2014 to the 20th anniversary of Francois Mitterrand’s death, on 11th January 2016 and countless other occasions. Though by definition it commemorates time, in a political sense commemoration is timeless; hence the great attention paid to the formal consecration of events by President Hollande and his predecessors. Commemoration allows French presidents to cloak themselves in the noble aspects of the office.

Commemoration recalls national (or party) unity in times of terrorist attacks or foreign policy interventions and provides set-piece occasions for the French President to address the nation (July 14th, 31st December).  In extremely grave times, such as the response to the terrorist attacks on January and November 2015, commemoration (with a broad definition) assumes the form of a brief spell of national unity against a clearly identified aggressor. Such moments allow the President to embody national unity and, in the case of the current incumbent, provide occasional respite from routine unpopularity. Though presidents attempt to prolong the sentiment of national unity (see Hollande’s attempt to constitutionalise the State of Emergency provisions) such occasions are almost by definition limited in time. Hollande’s opinion poll ratings took a familiar path after the dual terrorist attacks of January and November 2015:  an immediate rallying of support behind the President, followed by a steep decline in the polls two months later, the time it takes to unpick the thin veil of national consensus. Hollande’s steep fall in public confidence in early 2016 recalls that time is contingent and that commemoration is not the basis for long-term survival.

Time and contingent choices

That the Fifth Republic has survived for longer than any other political regime except the Third Republic can produce a false sense of coherence. The power of the present to interpret the past has been recalled during the course of my lectures to the first year students at Sciences Po Lyon. Revisiting the 1958-1962 period via contemporary videos and press reports recalls how much the presidential office has been shaped in terms of contingent choices that might not have occurred (the nature of de Gaulle’s arrival in power in 1958 amid allegations of Putsch-like behaviour; the General’s footloose interpretations of the constitution from 1959 to 1962; the president-centric interpretation of the 31st January 1964 press conference). The uncertainty of the early years of the Fifth Republic recedes from memory and is eclipsed in standard textbook accounts or historical narrations. If the French president appears with the benefit of hindsight as la clé de voûte des institutions, such a construction was vigorously contested by many at the time and only partially legitimised with Mitterrand’s election as first Socialist President in 1981.  The office of the presidency does not exist in a situation of stasis. The ascendancy of the presidency stems in part from the contingent choices made by individuals. Had General de Gaulle decided to invest the office of the Prime Minister, for example, we might conjecture that the development of presidential power would not have occurred in the form it did. We should note that General de Gaulle’s famous 1964 press conference occurred before the first direct election of the President of 1965; it represented a theorisation of presidential power that bore little relationship to the text of the 1958 constitution, but which would also be superseded by the consequences of bipolar competition after 1965. But the powerful institutionalisation around the presidency was a political game changer.

Time and Institutional rhythms

Core changes have occurred in the electoral and the institutional rules since 1958. The most significant change in the electoral rules concerned the direct election of the President in the October 1962 referendum. Direct election has had unintended consequences; rather than the consecration of a transcendental form of leadership, the direct election of the President produced an initially bipolar partisan competition for the conquest of the key institutional office. Changes in the institutional rules have influenced the evolution of the office. Arguably the most significant institutional change of all was that replacing the seven-year term (septennat) with a five-year term (quinquennat) in 2000. By aligning the two electoral cycles and ensuring that the presidential election precedes the parliamentary contest, these constitutional changes have consolidated the institutional ascendancy of the presidency. Because both the presidential and parliamentary elections were held in 2002, the second Chirac presidency had the luxury of enjoying a clear, five-year horizon without having to face national elections. Sarkozy repeated the feat in 2007, as did Hollande in 2012.

But the President’s more affirmed institutional ascendancy is not the most significant observation. After a period marked by stasis during the second Chirac presidency (2002-2007), the first Sarkozy (2007-2012) term bore the mark of the quinquennat, an acceleration of political time that makes cohabitation less likely, but propels the French president into a much more active role from the beginning of the mandate. Under Sarkozy (especially) and Hollande, the French President has appeared more explicitly as de facto head of government than their predecessors, and as such  has been forced to take responsibility for governing. Both Presidents were unable to use the shield of the prime minister to absorb unpopularity. While Sarkozy was less popular than his PM Fillon throughout the 2007-2012 period, Hollande was also eclipsed in terms of popularity by PM Valls from April 2014 onwards.

In 2007-2012, the personal governing style of ‘speedy Sarko’ combined with a changed set of rules of the presidential game (the quickening rhythm of the quinquennat) to create the fast presidency, an evolution of the traditional presidential office. Sarkozy’s presidency was based on a transgression of the key personal and institutional codes, most notably on a deeply political reading of the office, whereby the political leader dispensed with the discourse of national unity, slated opponents and invited unpopularity in response to detailed interventionism in politics and policy-making. Though Hollande’s personal presidential style was light years away from that of Sarkozy – ponderous, hesitant and deliberative – he faced similar constraints (the demand for rapid action to resolve crisis; occupying the frontline in the economic crisis [unemployment, economic growth, competitiveness]). Hollande has been hoist on his own petard because of the imprudent commitment, made barely one year into his quinquennat, to be judged on his capacity to reverse the upward trend in the unemployment figures. In spite of a battery of plans for the social treatment of unemployment, thus far the unemployment rate has edged ever higher (the December 2015 figures reversing an apparent improvement in November).

In both cases, the blame game (Sarkozy’s rupture with the Chirac years, Hollande’s persistent anti-Sarkozy stance) aggravated the situation. In both cases, the suprapartisan image of the French presidency gave way to a more sharply defined partisan appeal. Sarkozy’s claim to embody supra-partisan neutrality during the economic crisis from 2008-2010 was difficult to sustain given the hyper-presidentialist activism of the first three years. Likewise, Hollande failed to rise above the Socialist party politics that had propelled him to office after his success in the 2011 PS primary election.

These changing domestic institutional equilibria have challenged the traditional arbiter role of the French president. The presidential office itself has evolved to such an extent that the public’s perception of presidential action is rarely dissociated from the cleavages of domestic politics. This distance between the President and public opinion has been aggravated by the reality of tripartite party politics (since 2002 and especially since the consolidation of the National Front under Marine Le Pen since 2011), which is squeezed with great difficulty into the rules of bipolar institutional competition.

Changing Times afoot, Challenging Times ahead

The meaning of the presidential office has shifted with the passage of time. The French presidency has been affected by broader shifts in the domestic and external environment: the weakening capacities of French Presidents on the European level; the country’s modest economic performance, falling ever more behind Germany; the changing nature of the security challenges facing France and other European nations. The founding myth of the Fifth Republic, based on the heroic narrative of presidential leadership rescuing France from the abyss of the Third and Fourth Republics and a strong state, has faded with time and appears ever more out of kilter with the contemporary situation of France. French Presidents are no longer heroic figures and the capacities of national public policy action have been reduced as France has become increasingly integrated in the European Union.

The French presidential office was shaped and defined in a context of crisis, and has evolved through the contradictory impulse of contingent forces: of individual incumbents, of changing political circumstances and of evolutions in the external settings. The general quickening of political life has made it far more difficult for incumbents to combine the key roles that are traditionally ascribed to the French President. The fall from grace of individual French presidents has affected the capacity of the presidential office itself to stand above the fray of domestic partisan politics. Is the French presidency still fit for purpose? With changing times afoot, there are challenging times ahead.


Cole, A. (2012) ‘The Fast Presidency?  Nicolas Sarkozy and the political institutions of the Fifth Republic’ Contemporary French and Francophone Studies, 16:3, 311-321.

Happy New Year? Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents for 2016

In the first blog post of 2015, I explored the origins of and various customs and conventions surrounding the Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European heads of state. This year, I will look more closely at the content of these speeches (although focussing – for the sake of brevity – only on presidents, i.e. non-hereditary heads of state this time).

Finnish Niinistö records his New Year's speech for 2016 | photo (c) Office of the President of the Republic of Finland 2016

Finnish president Sauli Niinistö records his New Year’s speech for 2016 | (c) Office of the President of the Republic of Finland 2016

As I noted in my post last year, Christmas and New Year’s addresses rarely rarely belong to the most important political speeches in European democracies and often include a short summary of the last year’s events in the country. Common themes (apart from holiday wishes) are relatively rare. This year, however, many presidents directly addressed the refugee crisis in Europe. The presidents of Austria and Germany who have had to deal with extraordinary refugee streams both called for compassion and tried to strengthen the ‘can do’-spirit that has so far characterised the reactions of Federal Chancellors’ Merkel and Faynmann and volunteers in both countries. Presidents of other countries hit by the surge of refugees did not address the issue so clearly. Hungarian president Ader referred to it among other unexpected events of 2015, while the Slovenian and Croatian presidents Pahor and Grabar-Kitarović in their – significantly shorter seasons’ greetings – did not raise the issue at all apart from vague references to difficulties.

The refugee crisis featured more prominently on the other hand in the speeches of Slovak president Kiska and Czech president Zeman – yet taking almost diametrically opposed positions. Kiska largely downplayed the issue stating Slovakia was much less affected than other countries and the issue should not dominate the national agenda. Zeman on the other hand, called the influx of refugees as “an organized invasion” and called for young male refugees to return to their country to fight ISIS. Given Zeman’s previous statements this is hardly surprising, yet it is generally unusual for a Christmas message to include such controversial material. The refugee crisis also took centre stage in speeches by Finnish president Niinistö as he justified the steps taken by the government to limit the number of people receiving help.

Another theme in presidential speeches were national tragedies and the security. The Paris attacks featured strongly in French president Hollande’s speech, so did the Germanwing air crash in German president Gauck’s Christmas message. The ongoing Ukrainian crisis and potential conflict with Russia as well as the war in Syria were included in a number of speeches. Yet presidents also focussed on the economic situation and way of the recession – most prominently included in the messages of the presidents of Greece, Portugal and Iceland. The latter’s speech was however mostly reported on due to the fact that president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson announced that he would not run for a sixth term as president.

Overall, this once again highlights that presidential Christmas and New Year’s addresses can be important indicators of the political situation or the importance of particular events throughout the year. Until now, there has nevertheless been only very limited academic research on presidential statements on these occasions. So far, I could only find an analysis of the role of religion in new year’s addresses by Swiss Federal Presidents – showing an overall decline in biblical references throughout the years. [1] In most European republics appear to follow this trend – explicit biblical references beyond a mere reference to the holiday can only be found in the speeches of the presidents of Malta and Hungary.

Christmas - NY presidents 2016 + Wulff 2011

From top left to bottom right: Presidents Higgins (Ireland), Duda (Poland), Wulff (Germany; 2011), Coleiro Preca (Malta), Iohannis (Romania).

Last but not least (and partly inspired by the DailyMail’s analysis of the photographs on Queen Elizabeth II’s desk), I think it is worth looking at the setting of presidents’ speeches. Where speeches are broadcast on TV (or recorded and then put on youtube), the setting is surprisingly similar with the president usually sitting or standing in front of flags or a fireplace. In Germany, this set-up had so much become the norm that Christian Wulff’s walking speech among a group of surprisingly diverse citizens (see centre image of above collage) caused great excitement among editors trying to fill the seasonal news slump. More unusual however was Swiss Federal President Adolf Ogi’s address of 2000 – he stood in front of a railway tunnel (watch the video here).

[1] Kley, Andreas (2008). ‘”Und der Herrgott, Herr Bundespräsident?” Zivilreligion in den Neujahrsansprachen der schweizerischen Bundespräsidenten’. In: Kraus, Dieter et al. Schweizerisches Jahrbuch für Kirchenrecht. Bern, Switzerland, 11-56.

A list with links to the 2015/2016 speeches can be downloaded here.

John Gaffney – Understanding the French Presidency

This post is drawn from the Introduction to John Gaffney (2015) France in the Hollande Presidency: The Unhappy Republic (London: Palgrave).

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France is back in the news again and, as in January 2015, for deadly terrorist attacks, this time staggeringly more deadly; November 13: 130 dead, 350 wounded 80 of whom seriously. The French presidency was not the cause of these attacks, but it is central to the overall political process, and in particular its inadequacies. The presidency and the regime lie at the heart of France’s ills. Since François Hollande’s election in 2012, economic growth has been non-existent, unemployment has risen unrelentingly, along with the popularity of the far right Front National and its leader Marine Le Pen. My recent book* identifies, chronicles and analyses this ‘dysfunctional’ presidential republic. I analyse what the first half of the five-year term tells us about the nature of the Fifth Republic, and the way in which François Hollande failed to understand the ‘performative requirements’ of the Republic, in particular the notions of time, character, and what I call ‘sequencing the self’. From a theoretical point of view I am concerned with the appraisal of the political performance of an individual and his entourage within a particular configuration of institutions and expectations. By 2015, in many polls up to 86% of respondents had a very negative view of Hollande. In my book, it is unavoidable being critical of Hollande himself and his team. My analysis is not, however, concerned with his real character except in as much as it informs us about his ‘performative character’, and his persona; it is the relationship of this to the configuration of institutions and to public opinion that is the central focus of my study. My focus is the presidency and its historical, cultural, and institutional conditions of performance. Paradoxically, I am equally concerned with presidential politics at the daily political level, because this is where the presidency as a perceived and symbolic institution and one that is ‘active’ in political life actually ‘performs’. The ‘trivial’, the incidental, the apparently unimportant, and the ‘trivial unexpected’ in French politics are now in a systematic (and yet chaotic) relationship to ‘real politics’, to the point where the trivial has become unpredictable in its effects and has major political consequences. The Hollande presidency is an acute illustration of the dysfunction of the presidency in the Fifth Republic. Functionally, actions, reactions, and responses all take place within a symbolic or ideational framework, in large part related to how the Fifth Republic is perceived, and has been historically perceived, ‘imagined’ and ‘constructed’ since 1958. I concentrate on how the republic functions and acts symbolically, how it ‘enacts itself’. I identify the range of historical and cultural reasons why the Fifth Republic is one in which ‘symbolic politics’ and its related myths, leadership image, discourse, rhetoric, and the President as the ‘embodiment’ of politics, have taken on inordinate political significance. The strongest myth is that of the recours, or return of the ‘saviour’, a feature of French politics for two centuries but given an institutional platform by the Fifth Republic, and used by all leadership contenders, even if they have already ‘returned’, i.e. are in office.

From the practical point of view, I ask a series of ‘normal’ political questions about Hollande’s presidency and his government/s: Why were they so unpopular? How do we account for the rise of all the negative indices of the regime barely four months into office? How do we account for the extremes, the surges of opinion, such as the widespread Manif pour tous or Bonnets rouges protests in 2013? More widely, how do we account for the general, we might venture almost clinical, depression of the whole population (and this before the attacks of January and November 2015 which terrified the nation), the political demobilisation of the electorate, and a growing disdain for politics throughout the years of Hollande’s presidency? Was all of this inevitable? What should Hollande have been doing? What should he have not been doing? And an even wider question: how do we understand this profusion of surface phenomena in terms of deeper structures and processes? Gestures and actions at a daily level ‘betray’, ‘reveal’ the fundamentals of the Fifth Republic. We can characterise, for example, the storm of trivial activity through the spring, summer and autumn of 2013 of gestures, initiatives, actions, interventions, short holidays, media saturation of presidential and prime ministerial ‘déplacements’ during July and August 2013 as surface expressions of a kind of neurotic attempt to ‘cope with’ the barely understood exigencies of the republic. These gestures were not unconscious but, beyond the grasp of their authors, they demonstrate, perform even, the dilemmas of the Fifth Republic, in particular the highly problematic nature of the presidency. The most dramatic – debilitating for subsequent negotiations in November 2015, and humiliating for Hollande in 2013 – was his making the Syrian chemical weapons crisis of August-September 2013 a personalised clash between himself and President Assad, then his complete marginalisation when Presidents Obama and Putin defused the situation in September 2013.

De Gaulle created a very singular republic based inordinately upon 1) the role of the persona of the President, the role of discourse and of personal image and gesture, and the ‘character’ of the President; and 2) the constructed, ‘imagined’ relationship between the President and people on the one hand, and the President and ‘France’ on the other. These two facets of the new republic in 1958 had a dramatic and complex effect upon the nature of political competition, the influence of the political culture (later the role of the celebrity culture), the role of the symbolic, and the role and configuration of the institutions, in particular, the presidency. In the Hollande presidency there has been a series of such fundamental and on-going miscalculations that they raise the question of whether the political actors understand the republic. Simple things like an appropriate way to ‘be’ the President – how to talk, not constantly to joke, control the public comportment of his (now former) partner, and so on – betrayed a lack of sensitivity to both the exigencies of the office and the nature of the republic. After every interview, announcement, and press conference in his first two years, Hollande’s popularity fell significantly. In 2012, 2013, 2014, and now 2015 virtually no gesture, speech or action had traction on opinion. At times, indifference seemed even to replace hostility, as if the President had become an irrelevance, as if he barely existed. And tiny increases in popularity after crises like January and November 2015 were less the result of Hollande’s actions but because the office embodies national unity.

Not that Sarkozy had understood things much better. Sarkozy’s style might or might not have been appropriate, but Hollande’s own was in large part based upon his being simply the negation of Sarkozy, operationally, stylistically, politically, and – which would come to be highly problematic – ethically. Hollande had faced only half the issue (i.e. what unwanted features Nicolas Sarkozy had brought to the republic); what was not developed was an understanding of what he was going to replace them with and why, and how.

Nicolas Sarkozy’s fate as respected new President in 2007 was seen as being sealed the night of his victory by an ostentatious celebration meal in the Champs-Elysées restaurant Fouquet’s. Very badly received by the media and the public, this perceived, somewhat common, ‘bling’ expression of conspicuous consumption and celebration inserted fragility into his presidential status, and then a relentless decline in the new President’s popularity. This was the first time in the Fifth Republic such an ‘event’ had had such a crystallising effect. Hollande’s going off on holiday (almost immediately after election, and while unemployment burned) in July-August 2012 was his equivalent to Sarkozy’s defining miscalculation. Each of these events tells us a great deal about the ‘nature’ of this republic today: a single trivial act, given oxygen, as it were, by the media and opinion, can throw a presidency out of kilter. In some respects, this is a new and normative feature of governance or mal-governance in France. In another respect, it is not new at all, or is rather the singular new expression of a fundamental feature as old as the Fifth Republic, namely, the dramatically consequent phenomenon of personal popularity, or more accurately in these cases, unpopularity, themselves the product of a complex ‘imagined’ relationship between President and public. Charles de Gaulle brought to the Fifth Republic a very volatile emotional political relationship. Today, de Gaulle approaches sainthood in the public memory, but that was not the lived reality. Although the volatility of the relationship was displayed by him as appeasing of conflict, he was viscerally liked and disliked (one might venture to say loved and hated, admired and feared) in almost equal and varying measure; and this relationship saw his ultimate undoing in 1969 (and, ironically, established the conditions for the perenniality of both the republic itself and his mythical status). Beyond popularity, moreover, was the question of political and emotional need, what was ‘required’ of the presidency and how this fitted into the rapidly established parameters of the new republic between 1958 and 1962. De Gaulle responded to this need by developing all the dramatic aspects of his character, lending to the new French republic the ‘character’ of its new President: grand, visionary, imperial – in manner if not always in policies – interventionist, dramatic, in a phrase, larger than life. And presidential character was in a relationship to public approval – hence the triumphs of 1958 and 1962 but also defeat such as 1969. The same was less true of Pompidou, who acted as a kind of dramatic relief from such imperium (besides, any attempt to ‘follow de Gaulle’, as it were, would have looked farcical); but Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac’s presidencies each displayed enormous swings in ratings of popularity-unpopularity in the polls. All of this suggests an emotional volatility between the public and the Presidents. With the celebrity culture from the 2000s onwards, a new feature does not simply emerge in France but merges with this deeper structural phenomenon of the Fifth Republic, changing the problematic ‘intimacy’ in leader-public relations: neither Sarkozy nor Hollande seemed to understand this aspect of the regime, the emotional intensity and complexity of an, albeit ‘imagined’, relationship, and the fact that with the new celebrity politics the President would be in the public eye on a daily basis.

John Gaffney is a political commentator and author, and currently Professor of Politics at Aston University. Specialising in UK and French politics and the discourse of leadership, he regularly contributes to TV and print media. In July 2012, he was awarded £77,000 by the Leverhulme Trust for a two year study of UK political leadership. His latest book, France in the Hollande Presidency: The Unhappy Republic (Palgrave, 2015), is out now. His 2012 book, Political Leadership in France: From Charles de Gaulle to Nicolas Sarkozy (Palgrave), is out in paperback.

France – A state of emergency

On Friday 13 November, Paris was attacked by terrorists, who killed 129 people in horrific circumstances. How has President Hollande responded? What are the likely domestic political consequences?

In immediate response to the attacks President Hollande invoked a state of emergency (l’état d’urgence).1 This measure was introduced in 1955 at the time of the war in Algeria. The current application is the sixth. The previous time it was invoked was in 2005 during the riots in parts of Paris. Prior to then it was applied three times in relation to Algeria and once in 1984 with regard to the violence in New Caledonia. It’s a measure that doesn’t so much give the president more power personally. Instead, it gives more powers to the main ministerial and administrative actors in the domestic security context. So, the Minister of Interior gains certain powers as do prefects, who are the representative of the central state in the localities. It has a legal not a constitutional basis, though its constitutionality has been tested and approved by the Constitutional Council.

On Monday 16 November President Hollande followed up this measure with a speech to a Congress of parliament at Versailles. Bringing together the two houses of the legislature, presidential addresses of this sort have only been possible since the 2008 constitutional reform. Prior to that time, in strict adherence with a notion of the separation of powers, the president could only have a message read out to parliament and could not set foot in the institution. This was only the second in-person presidential address since the 2008 reform.

In his speech to Congress, President Hollande talked about extending the state of emergency for three months. He also introduced the idea of rewording Articles 16 and 36 of the 1958 Constitution to give this measure some sort of constitutional footing. At present, Article 16 deals with the president’s emergency powers, which are a step above a state of emergency, while Article 36 refers to the ‘state of siege’, which, again, is different from a state of emergency. As yet, not least because of subsequent events, no measures have been formally introduced.

President Hollande is now in the fourth year of his presidency. While leaders who are faced with severe security threats often benefit from a wave of public sympathy, President Hollande has not been in this position. He continues to record among the lowest satisfaction ratings of any president of the Fifth Republic. Following the terrible Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015 there was a wave of national unity that included most of the political class, yet the opinion polls did not rebound in President Hollande’s favour.

It is too early to tell, not least given the events that followed on Wednesday morning in Saint-Denis, whether public opinion will rally around President Hollande in the current circumstances. There is, though, reason to suggest that it will not. The 13 November attacks again met with a wave of national solidarity, but this time party political opinion has quickly divided. President Hollande’s speech at the Congress of parliament was received with dignity. However, little such dignity was in evidence during the questions to the government in the National Assembly on Tuesday 17 November, though this was in the presence of the prime minister rather than the president.

In short, domestic security policy already seems to have become more politicised than it was before the attacks. Needless to say, this issue is related to, or has the potential to be related to, other salient and highly divisive issues, such as the EU’s policy on migrants, the Schengen agreement, welfare policy, and freedom of communication. In this context, the rise of the National Front is salient.2 Their new leader, Marine Le Pen, is trying to ‘de-demonise’ the party, in effect making it electable. The mix of a volatile set of policy issues for which she has some seemingly easy answers and yet a party that is increasingly aiming to present itself as a party of government may well mean that it gains yet more appeal.

There is also the traditional right. The most likely winner of the 2017 presidential election is going to be the candidate of the former UMP, the Republicans (les Republicans). The party’s leader is none other than Nicolas Sarkozy, who has ambitions to return to the presidency. Prior to his election in 2007, he made his name on law and order issues. Therefore, events would seem to be playing into his hands. However, Sarkozy is a very contested figure within the party. Figures such as former PM, Alain Juppé, still have presidential ambitions and the road to the candidacy will be a rocky one.

In the meantime, France is traumatised. There is a certain unity, but there is a tremendous amount of fear. The governing regime, and, indeed, the political class generally, has formal legitimacy, but lacks popular support. An overseas war risks spreading to the streets of the capital and France generally. A state of emergency has been invoked in response. It all sounds eerily familiar, but things have moved on in the last 60 years. A simple change of regime will not alter the underlying issues and there is no saviour figure waiting in the wings. As things stand, then, France is likely to lurch on from crisis to crisis and from president to president.


  1. There is a nice review of the history of this measure by Sylvie Thénault in Le Movement social, no. 1, (2007), pp. 63-78. It is Open Access.
  2. There is a special issue of French Politics on the recent spike in support for the National Front available here, including free-to-access articles.

Emiliano Grossman – The French “guillotine” procedure: rationalized parliamentarism gone mad

This is a guest post by Emiliano Grossman, Associate Research Professor, Centre d’études européennes de Sciences Po, Paris


The announcement that the government would again resort to Article 49.3 of the Constitution for the adoption of the second reading of the “Macron Act” on June 18 caused a new outcry among politicians and the press. The first reading had already been subject to this procedure[1]. The main reason behind this is the existence of increasingly strong divisions within the center-left government majority in the Assemblée nationale, France’s lower chamber. The Macron Bill contains a series of measures meant to boost the French economy, but many of its critics within the government camp consider it to be a classic pro-market measure with few benefits for employment or public finance.

The use of this article is not new and neither are the hostile reactions that its use has led to. Opposition parties pretend to be outraged, while members of the majority remain, at best, awkwardly silent. Created by the 1958 Constitution, the ’49 .3′ or ‘guillotine’ is a permanent issue of conflict under the 5th Republic. The reason is simple: the procedure puts an end to parliamentary debate and the normal legislative procedure. In its original wording, the article is very explicit:

The Prime Minister may, after deliberation by the Council of Ministers, make the passing of a Finance Bill or Social Security Financing Bill an issue of a vote of confidence before the National Assembly. In that event, the Bill shall be considered passed unless a resolution of no-confidence, tabled within the subsequent twenty-four hours, is carried as provided for in the foregoing paragraph.

In other words, once the announcement is made, the law is adopted unless the opponents to the bill force the government to resign through a no-confidence vote! Originally, this text was conceived as a protection for the executive against the excesses of the Fourth Republic with its very high government instability. Article 49 carries very narrow understanding of government responsibility, defined simply as the absence of an absolute hostile majority. This has made it possible to make governments more stable and less vulnerable to fragile majorities. But over time it has turned into a tool in the hands of the executive, even in the absence of a real danger to the government.

As with any use of 49.3, voices on all sides have expressed hostility. Moreover, the two current heads of the executive feature an “anti-49.3” record. The Huffington Post quotes François Hollande arguing in favor of the “abolition of the 49-3” in 2007 (as well as many other now forgotten measures meant to strengthen the powers of Parliament) and Prime Minister Manuel Valls was part a group of “deputés” who, in 2008, introduced an amendment to delete Article 49.3 from the Constitution.

They were also opposed to the only reform of this article, which took place in 2008, under the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy. The reform was considered too timid. Rather than abolishing the article, it limited its use to the finance bill and one other bill per parliamentary session.

The graph below shows the number of 49.3 per legislature. This includes “complete” five-year legislatures as the last three legislatures, but also shorter ones, such as the 10th (1993-1997) or eighth (1986-1988). The blue-red band above the graph indicates the color of the majority for each legislature (blue = right, red = left).


The all-time champion of 49.3 is Michel Rocard, prime minister during the 9th legislature. At the time, the left held theoretically had an absolute majority in the Assembly. De facto, however, it could not rely on the Communist Party. With 28 uses, the Rocard governments account for one third of the 83 appeals to date. Edith Cresson, during the same legislature, used the article almost once a month. Before them, Pierre Mauroy, Raymond Barre and Jacques Chirac during the 1986 cohabitation had been regular users. François Fillon, the only Prime Minister of Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidential term, never resorted to 49.3 in 5 years of government.

If the opposition and often much of the majority oppose the use of 49.3, so why is it not abolished once a new majority comes to power? I order to answer this question it is necessary to remember that the world does not look the same from government or opposition benches. The same tool can thus look very attractive to the government and very questionable in the eyes of the opposition. And Article 49.3 is not the only example to illustrate this state of affairs.

The underlying reasons for this almost systematic shift in preferences with regard to article 49. 3 are rather straightforward. The 49.3 is very helpful to incumbent governments. The reasons put forward to justify its use are always more or less the same: “emergency”, the “need” or “no time to lose or risk-taking”. Indeed, in a context of crisis and divisions within the majority, 49.3 appears to be a weapon of last resort. It is a way to re-solidify the majority by confronting it to the danger of new elections. Thus, without even having to improve the bill and convince reticent allies the 49.3 will allow the party of Prime Minister to rely on the absence of opposition, rather than the presence of her majority.

While it is true that parliamentarians do not like the 49.3, there may be secondary benefits to it. It allows “small parties” or government minority partners to dissociate themselves from the government majority on specific bills. Thus, the left wing of the Socialist Party and the Greens can publicly take their distance with the Macron Act and signal their disagreement to their constituents. At the same time, they know full well that they cannot really prevent the adoption of the text. In doing so, they hope to retain a particular electorate, perhaps hostile to the text. Thus, the 49.3 also performs an ‘electoral’ function, as had John Huber (1996) had explained about 20 years ago.

It is therefore remains a valuable tool. To give it away once in power would be short-sighted. This certainly explains the discrepancy between the opposition parties’ advertised projects with regard to article 49.3 and their implementation (or rather, the lack of implementation) of reform once these parties come to power. As a consequence, we can expect new outcries and indignation the next time that the current opposition, when it is in power, resorts again to article 49.3.

[1] The government had already used the same procedure during the first reading. A discussion in French is available here.

John D. Huber, Rationalizing parliament: legislative institutions and party politics in France. Cambridge University Press, 1996.


Emiliano Grossman was born in Buenos Aires and grew up in Germany. He holds degrees from Sciences Po and the University of Cambridge. He has been a senior research fellow at Sciences Po since 2003, working now at the Centre d’études européennes (CEE). He is the co-convenor of the Master’s Programme in European Affairs. He teaches courses on EU politics, interest-group politics and comparative politics at Sciences Po. His research concentrates on economic and financial regulation in the EU and political institutions. He has more generally focused on the variety of state-society relations in the EU and the challenges they are facing. At the same time, he has worked on the political systems of EU member states and the effects of the EU on politics, policy-making and political institutions in France. He recently co-edited a special issue for the 50iest anniversary of the French 5th Republic. He is currently working on two major research projects. The first concerns the political agendas in France, which aims at creating quantitative indicators of political activity for the past 30 years or so. The second deals with the politics of financial liberalization in several EU member states over the past twenty years.