What now?

15 April 2023

Contrary to my (low-confidence) expectations, the Conseil Constitutionnel approved the reform bill with only minor changes (removing sweeteners that had been added to mollify the opposition in full knowledge that they would probably be invalidated). The CC also dismissed the petition for a referendum (on somewhat ludicrous grounds). There is still one more petition for a referendum that will be judged on May 3, but it, too, is almost certain (as I now see it) to be rejected. And Macron has promulgated the new law. So what now?

Resistance to the bill had let up somewhat, to judge by the diminishing number of demonstrators, but that may have been because the decision of the CC was still pending. Now that the Council has dashed the last best hopes of the opposition, we can expect a short-term increase in demonstration turnout as well as potential for a sharp increase in violence from both “black blocs” and police.

But my deeper sense is that resignation has begun to set in. Opposition was driven not so much by the provisions of the legislation (which, truth be told, hardly amount to the tyrannical oppression alleged by some of the fiercer opponents) as by growing discontent with top-down government led by technocrats with minimal civil-society input, rejection of the president’s often abrasive style, and avoidance of robust democratic debate (which, while fully constitutional, proved to be a politically provocative course). All of this was compounded by government ineptitude, miscommunication, and self-isolation. The perceived weakness of the formerly Jupiterian regime has emboldened the ambitious and dampened the enthusiasm of many who believed that Macron represented a new beginning for a worn-out Fifth Republic.

Instead, there is an ominous sense that said Fifth Republic may have run its course. The success of a presidential regime like the French always depended on what its founder thought of as an encounter between leader and people. The “Gaullist myth,” as the historian Sudhir Hazareesingh has called it, was always just that–in large part myth. But a myth embraced by a multitude is a source of democratic legitimacy, and de Gaulle knew that when the myth evaporated, it was time to go, so he drew the only possible conclusion from a lost referendum vote and bade farewell to the regime he had created.

Macron, for all his intellectual acuity, has thus far stubbornly refused to see the unfolding of the pension reform saga as a portent of the final collapse of the myth that brought him into office. He is determined to hang on. But since his tenacity is profoundly at odds with the structuring logic of the regime he heads, the result is likely to be intensified talk of the need for regime change. With four years to go and little prospect of meaningful legislation in the foreseeable future, debate about the flaws of the Fifth Republic itself could well come to dominate public discourse.

This could be a good thing. Such a debate could be a way for new parties to emerge around different ideas about how public life should be organized and how the balance of power among executive, administration, legislature, and courts needs to be altered to give people who now feel deprived of voice a sense that they are effective participants in, rather than mere spectators of, government. Optimism is not my natural condition, but I’m hoping that some good may emerge from this otherwise depressing episode.



  • bernard says:

    I agree that the people are resigned to the fact that this law has passed, however I believe that the (hardly seen before during the 5th republic) fury of the vast majority of the people with Macron and his government is intact and will be lasting throughout his remaining 4 year term. I believe that Macron does not not understand nor has the faintest idea of what the French people think or want. As a result and also because the leftist LFI handled this entire affair poorly (in contrast with worker’s unions which have made huge gains in popularity), the far right is making large gains. Macron is turning out to be the best propagandist for the far right and likely knows it and apparently couldn’t care less. This man has turned out to be catastrophic for France and its institutions as you point out.

  • Joe S. says:

    France has a feckless left, a fascist right, and a center composed of bankers and other énarques. No wonder the voters are disgusted. Especially those on the left, who are expected to hold their nose every five years and vote for a banker.

  • The reforms will vanish the moment there is an anti-Macron majority in the Assembly. So the Macronist strategy will be to use any method – mostly foul, of course, from that corrupt crew – to keep that from happening. I’m imagining that the incredibly corrupt mindset of the Macronites, which ranges over the cokehead lead Montaigne Institute to the Macron blocked investigations of his maitre d, Thierry Solere, to the petty but symptomatic theft of government money in the Marianne Affair – an affair notable for using the assassination of Samuel Paty as a “cause” to enrich some cronies of one of Macron’s subministers, will break into the news in spite of the fact that the media remains Macron’s most loyal demographic. Where you have what Samuel Roche calls a “democratic police state”, with the preferred method of governing being on the receiving end of a police baton, corruption of all kinds inevitably follows. Macron is surely the worst president of the French 21st century, which is quite a feat. Who knows to what depths he will go before he is done.

  • Anonymous says:

    It is hard to follow the vituperation of the last writer, but Macron’s fate was self-made. He possesses a tin ear when it comes to sounding a tone of bonhomie, which might have greased his better ideas forward. I write as one who had great hopes for Macron, now almost completely dashed. Rather than speechifying on television, he would do better to sidle up to Renaissance’s and Les Republicains’ least objectionable members: but he’s all top-down management, and it’s probably too late to change course. It won’t be pretty to watch Macron sliding down the greasy pole he clambered up so easily before.

  • Anonymous, sorry about the hard to follow vituperation! Here’s some clarifying linksl foir the affaire des fonds Marianne, a rather typical Macronist divergence of state money for political purposes, see Le Monde today: https://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2023/04/18/fonds-marianne-embarras-et-flou-au-sein-de-l-etat_6169992_3224.html, For the investigation of Thierry Soler and President Macron’s astonishing disparagement of the anti-corruption investigators, see Le Monde, https://www.lemonde.fr/politique/article/2023/03/03/thierry-solere-stakhanoviste-de-la-mise-en-examen-et-incarnation-de-la-face-cachee-du-macronisme_6163959_823448.html. For the astonishing case of Laurent Bigorgne, the head of the Montaigne Institut – an ultraliberal think tank which is famous for practically writing the Macron administration’s education policy – see the Marianne article here: https://www.marianne.net/societe/police-et-justice/laurent-bigorgne-ex-patron-de-linstitut-montaigne-condamne-pour-avoir-drogue-une-ex-collaboratrice.
    My theory is simple: when elite circles feel they have impunity from any rules and regulations, they become corrupt quickly. Because Macron has made it known that if one of his associates does something wrong, he will be pardoned , this has produced an atmosphere of corruption. In the affair Benalla, in which one of Macron’s bodyguards went out and beat up protesters – Macron famously said, “Le seul responsable de cette affaire, c’est moi et moi seul ! » Benalla has since gone on to a career of wealth and sleaze: here’s the story of his 85 million Euro “holding” company. https://www.lalettrea.fr/entreprises_finance/2023/01/31/alexandre-benalla-cree-une-mysterieuse-holding-pour-reunir-85-millions-d-euros,109907866-art. At a certain point, I think the dam will break. Macron has compared himself to Giscard D’Estaing – a French president whose re-election failed partly because of the numerous scandals associated with his name.

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