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Is France’s Political Crisis Just Beginning?

Written by Uri Friedman.
Read the original article on The Atlantic.

Image credit: The Atlantic

Emmanuel Macron, the next president of France, campaigned on a slogan of “Together, France!” And why not? He is a sunny centrist who attracted votes from the left and the right to decisively defeat the far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen on Sunday. The center seems not only to have held, but to have swelled.

But Macron’s victory could further fracture French politics rather than bridge the country’s political divisions, illustrating a challenge confronting many democracies at the moment, especially in Europe: A disenchanted public has blown up the political establishment, but it’s difficult to then fashion a well-functioning government out of the pieces. This can produce more disillusionment with politics, not less.

For signs of trouble ahead, consider the fact that a full quarter of the French electorate didn’t cast a ballot in this weekend’s runoff presidential election—one of the highest abstention rates in the history of France’s Fifth Republic, which was established by Charles de Gaulle in 1958. French voters are so disillusioned with their political leaders that, for the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, the runoff didn’t feature a representative from the main parties of the left and right. Whether that’s a response to the government’s failure to boost a stagnant economy, secure the nation from ISIS-inspired terrorism, or assimilate immigrants and address the downsides of globalization, the French consistentlyexpress low levels of trust in government. In the run-up to Sunday’s vote, a survey found that French voters are more polarized than the citizens of other European countries, with 20 percent describing themselves as politically extreme (compared with 7 percent in the EU as a whole) and 36 percent identifying as centrist (compared with 62 percent in the EU). So much for togetherness.

This protest against politics-as-usual is what catapulted Macron, a former government official who has never held elected office, into the Elysee Palace. He doesn’t belong to a party and only founded his “On the Move” movement a year ago. But the political independence that proved an asset during the presidential campaign could become a liability during parliamentary elections in June.

Macron has promised to field On the Move candidates in every French electoral district, and polls suggest the movement could win more seats in France’s National Assembly than any other party—maybe even enough to achieve a majority in the 577-seat lower house, which would be astonishing for an organization that has only just burst onto the political scene.

If, however, Macron falls short of a majority, he will need to form a governing coalition with other parties. And if another party wins a majority, he will need to deal with that rival party, in a scenario the French refer to rather euphemistically as “cohabitation.”

In France, presidents have for the last several decades generally been drawn from the major center-left or center-right party. Their victory in presidential elections has typically paved the way for their party to win a majority in parliament, allowing the president to appoint a prime minister from his party who will run the government according to the president’s wishes. This hasn’t always occurred; the Fifth Republic has experienced cohabitation three times. But the system has been running smoothly for a while: France hasn’t endured divided government since a constitutional amendment in the early 2000s that made both presidential and parliamentary terms five years, and scheduled parliamentary elections shortly after presidential elections to reduce the likelihood of cohabitation.

“During cohabitation periods, the presidency diminished in stature, and the premier tended to exercise the main executive policymaking authority,” writes John Carey, a comparative-politics professor at Dartmouth College. “For example, in the late 1980s, [Jacques] Chirac as premier engineered a major tax cut and privatized state-owned enterprises while the Socialist [President Francois] Mitterand could only watch. But when Chirac was president, Socialist Party Premier [Lionel] Jospin pushed through legislation to shorten the workweek from 39 hours to 35.”

Now, however, France’s traditional party system has imploded—and the risks of cohabitation and political dysfunction have returned. If an opposition party ends up controlling the National Assembly, Macron will likely be blocked from carrying out his ambitious policy agenda, which includes cutting government spending and giving employers more flexibility to hire, fire, and negotiate with employees. If he has to cobble together a coalition of diverse factions, he will have to painstakingly build support for each vote on each piece of legislation. As Francois Fillon, the Republican candidate who lost in the first round of the presidential election, memorably put it, Macron might have to again and again “cook up parliamentary dishes of impotence and compromises”—the very worst kind of French cuisine.

In these scenarios, the election of Macron would have the opposite effect of what his supporters intend: A man elected to finally get things done would struggle to get things done; a man elected to break with the traditional parties would have to work closely with them. Desires for political change and disillusionment with government might only grow.

This vicious circle is playing out across Europe, where frustration with establishment politics is hollowing out center-right and center-left parties, splintering the political landscape into an array of small- and medium-sized parties competing for influence. “The more fragmentation occurs, the more difficult it’s going to be [for fragile, unstable coalition governments] to pass any type of coherent policy program,” the political scientist Robin Best told me after the Dutch election. “And voters are probably going to end up being even more dissatisfied” and inclined toward protest votes and politicians on the political extremes.

If, on the other hand, On the Move secures a parliamentary majority, or if Republican and Socialist lawmakers decide to be uncommonly cooperative, Macron’s presidency could go swimmingly. As the historian Aline-Florence Manent has pointed out, De Gaulle designed the Fifth Republic so that it wouldn’t be dependent on political parties, which he viewed as sources of gridlock and instability. The founder of modern France “designed the Fifth Republic as a hybrid regime, combining the institutions of a parliamentary system with a powerful presidential office so that a crisis in the party system might not necessarily provoke a crisis of government,” Manent notes.

Macron’s presidency will “be a true test of the Fifth Republic as De Gaulle envisioned it,” she added. “So far, this has never really been tested, because the system developed into a de facto two party system.”

“It may have taken 60 years,” Manent writes, “but De Gaulle’s vision of the Fifth Republic could well be coming to a point of crisis.”

The West’s Crisis of Leadership

Sylvie Kauffmann

Sylvie Kauffmann


PARIS — A few days before the Bastille Day terrorist attack in Nice, President Obama was in Poland for the NATO summit meeting, his mind obviously as much in Dallas as in Warsaw. As I listened to him during his closing news conference, on July 9, I was struck by the sad, tired, almost defeatist tone in the way the leader of the most powerful nation on earth addressed the divisions within American society, after that week’s killings. “This is not who we are,” he insisted, as if trying to convince himself.

By the time he spoke in Dallas three days later, at the memorial service for the police officers shot dead there, President Obama seemed to have regained his confidence. But two days later, on July 14, I was reminded of that brief moment when he let his guard down as I listened to another president, François Hollande, speaking during an interview on French television. Mr. Hollande said that the state of emergency in force since the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks would soon be lifted. But as much as he wanted to sound optimistic, with a presidential election 10 months away, he still looked somber toward the end. “To be president,” he said, “means to have to face death, tragedy.”

That was lunch time on Bastille Day. At 3 the next morning, the French president was back on television, after the carnage that killed 84 people on the enchanting Promenade des Anglais in Nice, to announce that the state of emergency would be extended, for the third time. “France is strong, stronger than the fanatics that want to strike her,” he said. His opponents were quick to ridicule him either for having suggested that the state of emergency would be lifted, or for keeping it in force even though it had proved useless to prevent the attack in Nice.

Today, France and the United States are probably the West’s two main targets of Islamist terrorism. In France, our government warns that we must “learn to live with terrorism.” Yet just when they need to be stronger, our societies seem fragile, tense, stirred by powerful winds of revolt against their elites and an economic order that has increased inequalities. Can they withstand the shock?

Defying the odds through the last 18 difficult months — three bloody waves of terrorist attacks and sporadic terrorist incidents, strikes, violent protests against a reform of labor laws, high unemployment and floods — the French have proved surprisingly resilient. The annual survey of the National Consultative Human Rights Commission, carried out in January, even showed tolerance on the rise “despite the posture of some public figures.” While the 2008 economic crisis reduced tolerance, the 2015 attacks produced the opposite effect, “leading to soul-searching and civic mobilization” against extremists, the commission said.

Similarly, the Pew Research Center’s 2016 Global Attitudes Survey found that France (the European Union country with the biggest Muslim and Jewish populations) was the European nation second only to Spain in valuing diversity. The monthlong Euro soccer competition, hosted by France just before the Nice attack, also inspired intense fervor from the French public for its very diverse national team; it was supported throughout by enthusiastic singing of “The Marseillaise,” even after it lost the final game.

Some statistics from the Ministry of Interior, though, show a different picture: The number of racist criminal acts went up 22.4 percent in 2015. The reason for this contradiction, the Human Rights Commission’s experts suggest, is that while individuals who carry out such acts are becoming more radicalized, the society at large is more aware of the dangers of polarization. This attitude shows in an increasing number of civic initiatives, and in the results of the regional election last December: After the far-right National Front did very well in the first round, voters rallied against it and prevented it from winning a single region in the second round.

 Whether such healthy reactions will prevail after the Nice massacre — and any future one — is an open question. With a big immigrant population from North Africa and a very strong National Front locally, Nice itself is particularly vulnerable.
 The sad reality is that people of good will are not helped by a significantly mediocre political establishment. There could be national unity at the bottom — if only there were at the top.

This was illustrated again immediately after the Bastille Day attack. While citizens of all backgrounds and colors joined to pay their respects to the victims on the Promenade des Anglais, while the florists of Nice united to cover the bloodied avenue with flowers, while the nation was in shock, our politicians bickered over whether the government could have prevented this new atrocity. With the 2017 presidential election flashing big on his radar screen, Mr. Hollande’s rival and predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, did not even wait for the end of three days of national mourning before mounting a ferocious attack on what he saw as the government’s passivity.

The political debate in France has not quite reached the abyss of the campaign for the June 23 referendum on Brexit in Britain yet, nor of Donald J. Trump’s surreal pronouncements, but it is going in that direction. Le Monde’s longtime cartoonist Plantu feels that politicians, media and social networks have stolen his job: “They are now more caricatural than my own caricatures,” he said. In an interview with the Journal du Dimanche on Sunday, Prime Minister Manuel Valls openly worried about a trend that he describes as “the Trumpization of minds.” This, he said, “cannot be our response to the Islamic State.”

When citizens behave more wisely than the men and women who compete to represent them, the time has come to take a hard look at the state of our political systems and its impact on our societies further down the road — particularly when modern democracies are under threat from outside forces that have declared war on them.

France Is on Strike But the Real Problem Is Even Worse: Q&A

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Gregory Viscusi
May 30, 2016
[Original Article]

French President Francois Hollande is facing the most serious public unrest since he came to office four years ago. Most of the country’s refineries have been on strike for a week. Protesters have blockaded refineries and fuel depots, causing shortages and long lines at gasoline stations. Air traffic controllers and electrical workers have joined in. And the turmoil has exacerbated a labor dispute already underway at the national railroad.

While the French have stoically gone on with their lives, some protests have turned violent: a police car was torched on the streets of Paris May 18. This week, railroad workers, Paris transport employees and air-traffic controllers plan to strike, and some unions are threatening to disrupt the 24-nation Euro 2016 soccer tournament that begins June 10.

Aren’t workers in France always on strike? What’s different?

The ostensible cause of these disruptions, the most extensive since 2010, is a law loosening up some of the country’s rigid labor rules. The standoff has undermined Hollande, already the most unpopular president in French history, less than a year before the next presidential election. A Socialist, he came to office in 2012 with the support of unions, many of whose members now feel betrayed by his attempts to loosen labor protection.

What do you mean, labor protection?

Labor law in France is governed by the “Code du Travail,” an almost 4,000-page tome that covers everything from bathroom breaks to the size of windows in office. Layoffs can take years and require expensive payouts. The 35-hour work week, introduced in 2000 by a previous Socialist government, has further complicated the rules. France’s unemployment rate has hovered at about 10 percent for three years, and organizations from the International Monetary Fund to the European Commission have urged a loosening of the rules. Germany did so in the mid-2000s and unemployment there is now 4.5 percent. Even one-time laggards such as Spain and Italy are now outperforming France on job creation after liberalizing their labor markets.

So what’s the government doing about it ?

Parties from the left and the right, when they’ve governed the country, have acknowledged that France’s labor laws are too rigid while shying away from major changes. Campaigning in 2012, Hollande ran to the left, saying “finance is my enemy” and as president setting a 75 percent tax on high incomes. Then, after appointing Manuel Valls as prime minister in 2014, his government cut payroll and income taxes and pushed for looser labor regulations. Valls presented the so-called El Khomri law — named after Labor Minister Myriam El Khomri — last February.

Hasn’t the government watered down the bill?

Yes, after protests in March. For instance, a proposed limit on severance pay was cut. That’s why some major unions support the legislation in its current form (more on that later). One controversial element remains: a provision that would allow companies to ignore sector labor agreements (say, an accord that applies to all auto workers). Instead, they could negotiate contracts directly with their own employees. In addition, the bill would lower the minimum extra pay workers receive for working overtime.

While the ability to negotiate deals at the company level was a key part of the German labor reforms of the early 2000s, many employees in France could face lower earnings if the bill becomes law.

I can see how unions wouldn’t like that

Indeed, the CGT union, by some measures France’s largest and the leader of the protests, wants the bill scrapped entirely. It’s backed by Force Ouvriere, the third-largest.

Not all are opposed. The CFDT, France’s largest union by membership (but second to the CGT in elected company representatives), supports the bill in its current form. So does the CFE-CGC, which mostly represents white-collar workers.

It’s not just about the provisions of the law. Valls and his economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, have angered some segments of public opinion, and even some of their party’s own members, with their handling of the bill. The measure was presented earlier this year without any negotiations with unions, and with little explanation. Then when faced with a potentially rowdy parliamentary debate, the premier pushed it through by decree. The measure will be debated in the Senate starting June 13, and Valls has said repeatedly that he won’t consider withdrawing the law.

Don’t governments always give in to France’s unions?

Less and less. And that’s one reason the CGT is digging in its heels. A similar wave of strikes and gas shortages in 2010 failed to stop the government from raising the retirement age by two years. And strikes in 2014 failed to stop a reorganization of the national railroad. “The CGT wants to mark out its territory — they need to show their followers they can be winners,” said Claude Didry, a researcher at Ecole Normale Superieure of Cachan near Paris who just published a book called “The Institution of Work: a History of Labor Law.”

Even though they still play a key role in negotiating labor contracts in France, unions have never been weaker. Only about eight percent of French workers belong to one, compared with 11 percent in the U.S. and 18 percent in Germany, according to the OECD. The CGT, which grew out of the French Communist Party, had 4 million members in 1948 and has 700,000 now.

How does the French public feel?

France has a long tradition of supporting, or at least tolerating, public protests. According to a May 29 Ifop poll for Journal du Dimanche, 46 percent of respondents want the law withdrawn, 40 percent want it modified and only 13 percent want it to pass in its current form. In a poll for Le Parisien newspaper by Odoxa, 61 percent of those answering said the government was responsible for the escalating nature of the strikes, while 37 percent said it was “the irresponsibility of radical unions.” Two-thirds said the government had handled the situation badly.

How’s the French economy coping?

The strikes come just as output is showing some signs of life — jobless claims have fallen for two consecutive months to their lowest in more than a year — and Valls has warned the protests could derail the recovery. Business organizations issued a joint statement last week saying the fuel shortages were harming growth. An association that represents small- and medium-sized companies last week said 58 percent of its members were having trouble making deliveries and 47 percent had difficulty getting supplied.

Still, economists say the impact of the strike on growth will probably be minimal. Larger businesses have the capacity to mute their effect, and lost output can be made up later. Police last week broke up blockades at fuel depots and the government dipped intostrategic reserves, improving supply at gas stations. The general strike of 1995, which lasted about a month and was much more widely supported than the current action, wiped about 0.05 percentage point off of annual growth that year.

So how will all this end? What does it mean for France?

Hollande has supported his prime minister, saying that one union can’t make the law. Valls did say in interviews over the weekend that he was open to “modifications” and “improvements,” as long as companies remained able to negotiate their own contracts. Valls “will soften the labor bill to prevent strikes from spreading to other unions” but “these modifications are unlikely to alter the ‘philosophy’ of this already heavily diluted bill,” Eurasia Group said in a note to clients. The Journal du Dimanche newspaper said the government might make concessions on unrelated labor disputes, such as at the national railroads, to undermine union opposition to the labor law.

One factor working in the government’s favor: French strikes aren’t as fearsome as they once were. Thanks to declining union membership and a 2007 law requiring minimum service for public transport, recent work stoppages have caused nuisances for commuters without bringing transport to a standstill.