According to early estimates, the République en Marche ! party headed by President Emmanuel Macron is set to control more than 70% of the National Assembly. A rare case of political domination in French history.
Macronism is a representation of a French passion: Enlightened despotism, that of Bonaparte and De Gaulle, the quest for a Savior. Its origins are ancient, with Voltaire immediately springing to mind. In the spirit of the Lumières, he distrusted the people and thought the only possible alternative to the absolute monarchy was a philosopher king. His model — obviously a character of legend — was the emperor of China, whom Voltaire saw as wise, flanked by an autocratic, supposedly learned administration assembled according to merit. It seems they were our future énarques, the graduates of the prestigious French civil service school, ENA. Of course, there was also Montesquieu, who was wary of any authority and who was tasked with drawing up the principle of power separation. But Montesquieu’s ideals were exported to the United States, and the U.S. Constitution of 1789 serves as ample proof of this appropriation. Back in Europe, the French inherited the National Convention, in which all powers are held.
Democratic skepticism and indifference to the concentration of power are markers in our long history. Far from worrying about this scenario, the people and the commentators rejoice in the unity of political decision. As if this were the guarantee of some marvelous effectiveness. Napoleon and the Civil Code comes to mind. But so does Napoleon and a perpetual state of war. And De Gaulle and decolonization, followed by May ’68 and its representation of the president’s inability to evolve with his time. When power is identifiable in France — generally more by chance than through the constitution — the French people decry a “government of judges.” And when politically distinct presidents and parliaments exist together, the people dolefully yearn for the despotic spirit of the Fifth Republic.
Emmanuel Macron believes the French are inherent monarchists, and has inherited this history and its dubious outcomes. We believe him enlightened, but we really have no idea. They say Macron’s absolute powers will enable him to introduce reforms that other, less subservient parliaments would have refused. Let us indulge this exact and arithmetical, yet socially disastrous reasoning: A non-negotiated reform can only lead to a counter-reform. In a divided country such as France, thinking that despotism is more “effective” than a consensus is foolish. Despotism calls for revolution, and the French are pushed to revolt precisely because of undivided power.
Montesquieu or Bonaparte?
The most dysfunctional U.S. president in American history is unable to impose his whims, precisely because the balance of power forbids it. This is the first major example of the constitution truly fulfilling its function: Organizing power and forbidding autocracy. The highly independent American justice system has blocked Donald Trump’s most xenophobic initiatives, the totally independent U.S. media has contained his transgressions by shining a light on his and his entourage’s shameful acts and statements, and the states guarantee the continuity of public services. We can hardly imagine the same Trump with the equivalent French institutions. Only the people would be able to fight him.
Macron is not Trump, probably not Bonaparte, and is a man of his time while De Gaulle often wasn’t. But we must already envisage his dangerous successor, such as Mélenchon or Le Pen, who would benefit from the full powers our history has afforded us. We can also imagine that an initially enlightened despot slowly becomes simply a despot, because they age, change, disappoint or become intoxicated with power. This has already been seen. I would conclude that the upcoming reform of the French Employment Code may be essential, as may the continuity of the current state of emergency. However, these things remain to be proved. It is just as vital that we review our institutions, who have spent the last decades ensuring that these sorts of decisions may not be taken so easily, for fear of pushing France to the verge of civil war. The Fifth Republic is reputed for its effectiveness, as shown by its long history, but it is in reality a paralyzed establishment tempered by the threat of revolt.
The people are not the ones who should change, but the institutions, ill-adapted to the people. This observation was made by Pierre Mendès France in his time, and by François Mitterrand before he was elected. The French presidency is a legal form of enlightened despotism, and not suited to our fragmented society. We would be better with a real parliament in which we negotiate. And a representative parliament — which the new one will not be, with one third of the votes for two thirds of the seats. Critics may offer the ghost of the Fourth Republic as a counter-argument, that Gaullist legend that could not know of France’s reconstruction, the creation of the European Union, the decolonization of Morocco and Tunisia, and other accomplishments of this supposedly loathsome regime. French parliaments have so far achieved more successes than French presidents. But parliamentary promotion is not on the agenda, as the new regime is moving towards even greater despotism, drawing on referendums and rulings, as though a submissive Assembly were not enough for its ambitions. However, we may also look to the end of this term, hoping to be proved wrong.