France: in response to ‘gilets jaunes’ protests, Emmanuel Macron turns to watered-down populism

In Perpignan, January 12, 2018. Raymond Roig/AFP

The violence of France’s “gilets jaunes” (yellow vests) protests highlights the profound crisis of communication that has been brewing in the country over several decades. Now, in an effort to appease the protestors, the government of President Emmanuel Macron has launched a “grand débat national” – a two month informal national consultation with the French people on a way to alleviate the anger that led to the protests.

Since 2009, when OpinionWay developed a political trust barometer for the CEVIPOF Reference Centre for Political Science, it’s been clear that a vast majority of the French population believe that governments take little or no notice of their problems. In the latest version of the survey from December 2018, the number rose to 85% after a slight dip to 83% at the end of 2017.

This sentiment has been emphatically expressed at every French election in the last 30 years through a steady rise in protest votes and abstentionism. It also helps to explain the results of the 2017 election: with his moderate brand of anti-establishmentarianism, Macron was elected by the French people as a kind of last-chance promise that they would finally be listened to.

Macron’s campaign was designed to elicit hope for a revitalised political process. His oft-repeated axiom, “on the other hand”, implied the construction of a calming platform of consensus, above and beyond the fruitless and counterproductive left-right divide.

At a time of great distrust in mainstream political parties, this was undoubtedly a politically savvy and ultimately successful electoral strategy. But on a deeper level, the future president was already signalling a clear intention to establish a direct relationship with citizens, via a kind of watered-down populism aimed at winning over both those wanting to overturn the status quo and more moderates.

Contradiction at the heart of Macronism

The first 18 months of Macron’s term in office perfectly illustrated the contradiction lying at the heart of Macronism. While happy to pour fuel on the populist fire, the government contented itself with worn-out representative institutions, incapable of empowering citizens to appropriate political action.

Macron’s imperious manner demonstrated a desire to re-establish a strong presidential image, one of a leader capable of rising above the noise of the media to guide the nation with a firm hand over the rocky seas of a changing world. At the same time, Macron clearly liked mixing with the French people, greeting them, touching them and talking to them frankly and directly.

Behind this contradictory posture – a mix of the haughtiness of Charles De Gaulle and the warmth of Jacques Chirac – is a government intent on rushing through a series of reforms and a parlimentary majority that’s largely ineffectual. Both are locked within the cumbersome framework of a dehumanised, technocratic structure, inherently deaf to the social innovation of civil society.

But he who lives by populism dies by populism. By insisting on an initiative for citizens’ referendums as their ultimate demand, the most radicalised and visible gilets jaunes have clearly demonstrated that Macron’s veneer of populism will no longer do. The entire representative model of democracy is now being radically challenged, right down to its foundations.

The erosion of the electoral pact

As I’m exploring in my own research, there are deep structural problems with France’s political system. There has been a drastic decline of third-sector organisations. Trade unions have been undermined as negotiators, non-governmental organisations are seen as unable to spark and spread social change. Media outlets are regularly disparaged, overwhelmed by the profusion of unfiltered information and opinions on social networks, and no longer deemed capable of prioritising and making sense of the news.

Political parties, who once developed ideologies and acted as a liaison between civil society and the government, are now paralysed by the “presidentialisation” of French government. For his part, Macron has made little effort to transform his party, the République En Marche, into a bona fide organisation.

Other problems arise from the institutions themselves. The heavy weight of the presidency in the parliamentary system, reinforced by five-year terms and concurrent presidential and general elections, has damaged the relationship between the executive and legislative branches of government. France’s National Assembly, now an echo chamber for government decisions directed by the president’s office, has lost all ability to effectively relay the feedback of those affected by decisions to those making the decisions.

An approach tainted by convenient populism

Given the severe breakdown in political communication and the ineffectiveness of the bodies designed to mediate between governments and those governed, the government’s response to the gilets jaunes is puzzling. First, the intense focus on the movement is unusual given the relatively small number of protestors. As early as December, many trade union leaders expressed their consternation at the state of a democracy in which the protestors obtained initial concessions with such ease, while deliberately refusing to respect the rules regarding protests and never numbering more than a few hundred thousand.

The new national debate – potentially followed by a referendum on a range of questions – is just as surprising. It’s difficult to see the point in rehashing the debates that preceded the 2017 elections outside of the established institutional frameworks, when it appears impossible to change certain aspects of the programme on which the government was elected.

There is a high risk that the debate could generate more frustration than satisfaction among citizens, and from representatives who will be deprived of their role as intermediaries. All of this creates great uncertainty regarding the outcome of the planned referendum, which may be seen as a de facto test of popularity for Macron.

Tainted with convenient populism, the government’s approach raises questions about its real intentions. If its objective is to preserve the representative political system, the first step should be extensive rehabilitation to improve its form, the way it operates on a daily basis and its modes of communication.

An informal national debate lasting all of two months, touching on policy measures and institutional issues, appears unlikely to meet this imperative. Especially amid a crisis where there is a dearth of communication and all sides are already talking at cross purposes.


Translated from the French by Alice Heathwood for Fast For Word.

This article was originally published in French