France: the “yellow vests” and the rise of anti-presidentialism

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

On November 17, 2018, a demonstration of the so-called “yellow vests” (which must be carried in French cars in case of accidents) took place on the Champs-Elysees and some demonstrators attempted to go to the Elysee Palace before being blocked by police. The protesters demanded the dismissal of the president. France was, consequently, shaken by violent protests.[1] The “yellow vests” first protested against rising fuel taxes, then they called for a more radical change: lower taxes, higher wages, … The slogan that the protesters chant the strongest and most often concerns the reinstatement of the wealth tax. Finally, they presented a whole series of institutional demands that constitute a questioning of the French semi-presidential system that has existed since 1958.

We will first look at the basic characteristics of the French semi-presidential regime, before analyzing the events that led to the fall of President Emmanuel Macron’s popularity and the questioning of his person. A movement of criticism of representative democracy then developed in the “yellow vests”, demonstrating a willingness to set up mechanisms for popular consultation, upsetting the balance of the French presidential system. The social and political crisis of the “yellow vests” could therefore lead to a crisis of regime.         

1. The main characteristics of the French semi-presidential regime

France has a semi-presidential regime whose main characteristics are the strong legitimacy given to the president by his election with direct universal suffrage and the support of a homogeneous and stable parliamentary majority.

Indeed, it was mainly the election of the president by universal suffrage in 1962, which gave the president a strong democratic legitimacy, that allowed him to concentrate many powers in his hands. General de Gaulle then wanted to reinforce his legitimacy, but especially that of his successors, by inscribing in the constitution the election of the president with direct universal suffrage rather than by a college of elected grand electors as in 1958. He decided to organize the vote of this constitutional text by referendum without first submitting it to the parliament. The election of the president by universal suffrage was widely approved (62.25% of the votes). The presidential election becomes, therefore, the determining election of the French political life. Being the only one to really count, the political parties then no other objective than to elect a president. The use of universal suffrage has thus radically polarized political life – since 1962 the different parties merged into two coalitions: right versus left.

The role of the presidents is also strengthened through stable and disciplined parliamentary majorities. This support was reinforced by the replacement of the seven-year presidential term by a five-year term in 2000 and the inversion of the electoral calendar.[2] In the referendum on the presidential term in September 2000 voters voted “yes” by a large majority (73.21% of the votes), but in a context of high abstention (69.81%). In 2001, the parliament voted to reverse the electoral calendar so that the legislative elections were held after the presidential election. The purpose of this inversion is to match the two mandates to avoid cohabitation. The purpose of inverting the calendars was to introduce concurrent mandates, thus avoiding cohabitation and giving the president a coherent parliamentary majority – in contrast to the parliamentary dissolutions made in the wake of the presidential elections of 1981 and 1988. In 2002, 2007, 2012 and 2017, the legislative elections, with the amplifying effect of majority voting, corresponded to this logic.[3] Indeed, this accentuation of the “factual majority” increases the pre-eminence of the presidency even more, but also its influence in the daily governmental practice.

Some modifications of the constitution have softened certain aspects of the presidential function. Nevertheless, its quasi-monarchical character remains and has even been accentuated since 2002 by the implementation of this dual decision to establish the five-year term and to reverse the electoral calendar. The most recent presidents have benefited from these assets, even if François Hollande had wished to exercise a “normal presidency” and Nicolas Sarkozy developed a “hyper-presidential” conception of institutions. As for Emmanuel Macron, he conceptualized a vigorous approach to the presidential function. He himself theorized his function under the name of “jupiterian president”.[4]

From general de Gaulle to Emmanuel Macron, all presidents have developed a very presidentialist conception of the political regime. The presidential omnipotence around a head of state, who alone embodies political power, is considered as an essential source of the current malaise. Every five years, the presidential election creates strong expectations around a politician installed as a quasi-monarch. A year later, systematically, disenchantment arrives. Since the introduction of the five-year term, no president has managed to get re-elected. The five-year term, combined with the inversion of the electoral calendar, profoundly changed the political life and it completely changed the balance between the president, the government, and the parliament as it resulted from the 1958 constitution.

The presidential omnipotence, around a president, who alone embodies political power, is considered as an essential source of the current malaise. The satisfaction score attributed to the president with respect to the exercise of power tends to diminish over time. The lowest satisfaction score experienced by de Gaulle is 42%; Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s lowest level was 35%; François Mitterrand at 22%; François Hollande at 13%. Emmanuel Macron now has a 23% approval rating. The “yellow vests” illustrate the distrust of the presidential omnipotence. Their enemy is the president.

2. The hatred of Emmanuel Macron

The recent movement of “yellow vests” is the result of ten years of social stagnation since the 2008 crisis. It led to a background of social dissatisfaction and disregard for the political regime and its representatives. Yet, on the other hand, it is the person of the president who is at the centre of all recriminations. The president’s person is rejected. Elected democratically and legally, the president is the subject of a lawsuit in illegitimacy.[5]

The heterogeneous group that constitutes the “yellow vests” is bound thanks to a common cement: the hatred of Emmanuel Macron. One of the red threads during the days of mobilization appeared to be the focus of resentment on the president himself, who was known to be unpopular and who was found hated. It is this factor that best sums up feeling towards the president among the protesters. This personal dimension is an aggravating factor in this crisis. Under the 5th Republic, the president usually suffers a rapid wear after his accession to power. The predecessors of Emmanuel Macron (Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande) have governed only one mandate. But the visceral rejection of the current president and verbal and physical violence in the streets put his presidency in jeopardy.

Since the slogans poured by thousands on social networks to calls for murder through insults, Emmanuel Macron proves to be the target of a hatred, a violence sometimes unheard.[6] The personality of Emmanuel Macron focuses the animosity of the demonstrators. He is the target of many critics. They reproach him for an exercise of what is deemed monarchical power, a neoliberal economic policy, links with finance. It must be said that in the way he has held office for a year and a half, he has offered himself to popular anger. Since his election, the president has indeed not allowed any other major political figure at his side, and particularly not the prime minister or the ministers. In the current social crisis, the denunciation of the “little presidential sentences” was very important. They are one of the vectors of the transition from unpopularity to detestation. These words were received as insults.[7]

3. The challenge of representative democracy and anti-presidentialism.

The movement of “yellow vests” showed a deep distrust of representative democracy and the very principle of representation. Representative democracy as it was established in the 20th century is criticized. Some even speak of a democratic exhaustion.[8]

Yet an essential element of the political regime, the election of the president with direct universal suffrage, was not the object of any criticism, except among the proponents of a 6th Republic who wish the return to a more parliamentary set-up of institutions. For a long time, it has been very favourably received and continues, according to opinion polls, to garner the support of a majority of French people – 53% to say they are attached to the election of the president with popular vote (a provision that was however adopted in 1962 by 62.25% of voters). The presidential election remains “a particularly strong democratic moment” for 62% of French people. However, 62% of them also believe that the political regime of the 5th Republic is more likely to favour the excesses of too personalistic power, compared to a parliamentary regime.[9]

The “yellow vests” express a real mistrust of all the traditional representatives, who would no longer be likely to “speak on behalf of the people”. Beyond the president, all elected officials are targeted. They are considered not active enough, disconnected from the everyday life of the French people … The idea of ​​a conflict between the high and the low, the elites and the people, is at the heart of the demands. Beyond these demands, supporters of the social movement join in the rejection of parties, unions, justice, police and all other institutions. They are deeply suspicious of all politicians. Unlike other populist movements, “yellow vests” are not tied to any political party. Some of them come from extreme-right or extreme-left movements, but many are merely anti-politics.[10]

In addition, a demand for participatory democracy has emerged in the claims of “yellow vests”. This situation reflects the crisis of representation that is spreading throughout many Western liberal democracies. This is a profound criticism of the representative regime that we are witnessing in France. Beyond the claims of purchasing power, social justice and taxation, the movement of “yellow vests” leads to a political demand: to give citizens the power to participate directly in the affairs of the country. They intend to exercise this right through the introduction of a “citizens’ initiative referendum”. The “yellow vests” want the people to intervene directly in political life. It would be a real threat against representative institutions. In addition to the possibility given to citizens to propose and repeal laws, the citizens’ initiative referendum should give them the right to dismiss elected representatives, and therefore the president, when the latter do not perform satisfactorily. To be initiated, a sufficient number of signatures must be collected – on social networks, the number of 700,000 signatures is already circulating.

The principle of the referendum has already existed since 1958. Article 11 of the constitution provides that “the President of the Republic, on a recommendation from the government” triggers the referendum. This referendum procedure has been used nine times since 1958 (1961, April 1962, October 1962, 1969, 1992, 1988, 1992, 2000, 2005), but has gradually weakened to the indifference of the voters (introduction of the five-year term in 2000), or that its result was then bypassed (European Constitution in 2005). As soon as he was elected, Jacques Chirac revised the constitution to allow referendums on “reforms relating to the economic, social or environmental policy of the nation, and to the public services contributing thereto”. The constitutional revision of 2008 then added the principle of the “shared initiative referendum”, which is triggered “on the initiative of one fifth of the members of parliament, supported by one tenth of the voters enrolled on the electoral lists”. But this “shared initiative referendum” has never been used. Its organizational conditions are so absolute that it has remained a dead letter.

Procedures of direct democracy risks reducing the omnipotence of the president. It is up to the president, on a proposal from the prime minister or the parliament, to decide to use the traditional form of the referendum provided for in Article 11 of the constitution. The call to the people is an opportunity for the president to draw on the source of legitimacy. General de Gaulle had always accompanied it with the question of confidence. But his successors sought to confer on it the character of a popular vote. Lawyers are divided on the citizens’ initiative referendum. Some of them are in favour,[11] while others are hostile.[12]

Many protesters are seeking the removal of the president. “Macron dismissal” is a slogan that comes back in the manifestations of “yellow vests” or on the Facebook pages of the movement. On the Internet, a petition calling for the dismissal of the president has exceeded hundreds of thousands of signatures. To support their request, many internet users evoke a passage from the constitution: article 68. “The President of the Republic shall not be removed from office during the term thereof on any grounds other than a breach of his duties patently incompatible with his continuing in office”. The removal “shall be proclaimed by the Parliament sitting as  the High Court”, one can read. This impeachment procedure, which has never been used, was introduced in 2007 as a counterpart to the immunity available to the Head of State. At no time, however, is it specified what is the nature of the failings that could lead to the removal of the president. It was notably a former presidential candidate, François Asselineau, who suggested the idea to “yellow vests” to use this article.

In response to all these recriminations, the president opened other chapters. Those in particular that deal with the constitutional reform component, this electoral promise to the realization seriously slowed in recent months. “I want to ask the questions that affect the representation, and the possibility of seeing currents of opinion better understood in their diversity,” said the president, wishing that this project opens in the framework of “great national debate” that he promises all over the country. Behind these words, resurfaced the idea of ​​introducing a proportional representation in the method of election of deputies to the National Assembly.[13] The executive wants to introduce a “dose” of 15% for proportional representation in this election, but the discussions has stumbled for many weeks, especially since the reform also plans to reduce the membership of parliament by 30%. Emmanuel Macron evoked a second track, which is part of the claims of some “yellow vests”: the recognition of the white vote as a vote in its own right. In this regard, the president pleaded for “a more just electoral law” which would result in “the taking into account of the white vote [blanc voting card]”. The measure was not provided for in the current constitutional reform. The white vote broke records in the second round of the May 2017 presidential election, as did the abstention. The President did not take a position, particularly on the issue of the questioning of the election in case of a high white vote. Faced with the motley “yellow vests” movement and officially without spokesperson, Emmanuel Macron also rested the issue of “participation in the debate of citizens not belonging to political parties” and therefore the establishment of a system of “participatory democracy”. The constitutional reform currently under discussion already foresaw opening “institutions to the citizens”, notably through the transformation of the current Economic, Social and Environmental Council, which could enlighten the public authorities on the economic, social and economic issues, organize “public consultation” and receive citizens’ petitions.

The president keeps the advantage because he alone is master of clocks. Then the president plays on all the levers at his disposal: first the “great national debate” he invented to try to get out of the crisis in which he is stuck for almost three months. The exercise must serve as an outlet for the anger but also as a springboard to the aspirations since the President intends to be inspired to build “the new stage of the transformation of the country.” He dismissed the possibility of “playing on the classical institutional keyboard”. According to him, the dissolution of the National Assembly, a negotiation with the social partners or a change of government would be only “expedients” in the face of the social crisis. There remains the hypothesis of a referendum or a meeting of the Congress. The idea of ​​organizing a referendum after the “great national debate” on May 26, 2019, the day of the European elections, was put forward. Emmanuel Macron himself considered this possibility, during an exchange with journalists, on January 31, 2019 at the Elysee Palace.[14]

[1] Arthur Nazaret & David Revault d’Allonnes, “Les dix jours où Macron a tremble”, Journal du Dimanche, 27 January 2019.
[2] Annie Laurent, “Des effets de l’inversion du calendrier électoral sur la fragmentation du système partisan français (1967-2012)”, in Yves Déloye, Alexandre Dézé, Sophie Maurer (eds.), Institutions, élections, opinion. Mélanges en l’honneur de Jean-Luc Parodi. Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2014, 119-138
[3] Bernard Dolez, Annie Laurent, “La logique implacable des élections séquentielles », Revue Politique et Parlementaire, no 1083-1084, 2017, 127-142; Bernard Dolez, Annie Laurent, « Des voix aux sièges. Les élections législatives de 2017”, Revue Française de Science Politique, vol 68, no 5, 2018, 803-819.
[4] Emmanuel Macron used only once the adjective “Jupiterian”, and it was to speak of François Hollande. ‘He does not believe in the ‘Jupiterian president’, he told the weekly Challenges in October 2016. And yet the expression invaded the discursive space as soon as Emmanuel Macron won the presidential election.
[5] Gérard Grunberg, “Les gilets jaunes et la crise du système politique“, Telos blog, 21 November 2018.
[6] Dominique Schnapper, « Emmanuel Macron : pourquoi cette haine ? », Telos, 28 janvier 2019; Alain Duhamel, “Le triomphe de la haine en politique”, Libération, 10 January 2019.
[7] Anne Rosencher, “La haine anti-Macron”, L’Express, 12 December 2018.
[8] Quentin Deluermoz, « Ce mouvement traduit un épuisement démocratique », Le Monde, 16-17 December 2018.
[9] Loris Boichot, “Soixante ans après, la Ve République inspire des sentiments mitigés aux Français”, Le Figaro, 4 October 2018.
[10] Jacques de Saint Victor, Les antipolitiques. Paris: Plon, 2014, 128.
[11] Anne-Marie Le Pourhiet, “Les Français doivent décider eux-mêmes”, Le Figaro, 18 December 2018; Dominique Rousseau, “Le référendum d’initiative citoyenne n’est pas une idée nouvelle”, Le Monde, 19 December 2018.
[12] Olivier Duhamel, “La porte ouverte à toutes les demagogies”, Le Figaro, 18 December 2018 ; Anne Levade, “Le ‘RIC’, une vieille idée toujours abandonee”, L’Express, 19 December 2018; Denys de Béchillon, “La foule est le plus mauvais décideur politique qui soit”, Le Point, 24 January 2019.
[13] Anne Levade, “Proportionnelle: gare aux apprentis sorciers”, Le Monde, 2 Feburary 2019.
[14] Guillaume Tabard, “Le ‘nouveau souffle’ que veut Macron”, Le Figaro, 1 February 2019; Guillaume Tabard, “Et maintenant l’hypothèse du Congrès”, Le Figaro, 7 Feburary 2019.

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