Neither right nor left - is the system of the 5th Republic outdated?

Macron auf gaullistischen Abwegen?
Macron auf gaullistischen Abwegen? © picture alliance/Pool/Liewig Christian/Maxppp/MAXPPP/dpa

Executive-based, elitist and not very close to the people - there is no shortage of critical adjectives to describe the weak points of the French political system.

In contrast, the French presidential party La République en Marche (LREM) took office with the promise not only to transform France's economy into a "start-up nation", but also to turn around the political dynamics in the country as a whole. Thierry Ollivero, LREM's officer for Central Europe and the Balkans, is a prototypical example of this: the young HR professional, who works in Germany for a French industrial group, had no previous political experience before joining Emmanuel Macron's political movement. As he pointed out at a Friedrich Naumann Foundation discussion event with MoDem MP Frédéric Petit on 22 February, the creation of LREM was about nothing less than doing away with outdated notions of policy-making. In particular, the institutional straitjacket of the French political system was to be discarded: despite majority voting and a bipolar party system, the governing party sees itself as a party of the centre, rather referred to in France as the third way, which can be located neither on the right nor on the left of the political spectrum. LREM is not the first political force to attempt this political acrobatics: in fact, with the Mouvement Démocrate, a centre party already tried to break out of the right-left scheme of political poles in the 2007 election campaign - and failed mercilessly. Now, however, the MoDem had joined a joint government coalition since Macron's election in 2017, although it remains open to what extent their weight will be decisive for further policy-making.

Rejection of the Classic Left-Right Schema

In their self-representation, LREM and the centrists have taken it upon themselves to make policies that are above ideologies, where results count and a willingness to reform sets the tone.  The background of LREM as a citizens' movement in distinction to the traditional parties allows for a politics of "shared values" that includes both left and right aspects and can thus be described as quasi "republican". But as beautiful as this idea is in the eyes of LREM and the centrists, it cannot hide the fact that the French political system is unleashing centrifugal forces that the French parties can only escape to a limited extent. One only has to think back to Valérie Giscard d'Estaing's former Union pour la démocratie française (UDF), which broke up after the presidential election in 2007 due to a dispute over direction. And even Economy Minister Bruno le Maire warns in his book published in January: "either we manage the transition towards new institutions or we face a systemic crisis". [1]

Institutional Reforms are Long Overdue

Noting that France's political system does not adequately reflect the political diversity of the French, Mouvement Démocrate President François Bayrou called in January for the introduction of proportional representation for National Assembly elections from 2022. But the appetite for institutional reform in the wake of the yellow waistcoat crisis, and especially the current corona pandemic, is limited both within the governing majority and among the French themselves. Rather, the already existing fears of social decline, the tendencies towards division within society between rich and poor, the high youth unemployment even before the crisis, and the French economic slump as a whole are threatened to be further exacerbated by the ongoing Corona restrictions. Thus, from a German perspective, the current political situation in France seems highly paradoxical: on the one hand, the 5th Republic fulfils what it was originally conceived for by Charles de Gaulle against the backdrop of the Algerian Kireg: a stable executive that centralises power in an emergency situation and thus ensures political capacity to act. Actually, given the multitude of uncertainties that the current pandemic situation entails, this should correspond to a large part of the French who long for a "strong man" as the embodiment of state power. On the other hand, a feeling of powerlessness has spread among many French people, and not only since the Defence Council (Conseil de défense) was set up in the Corona crisis, which, according to Article 15 of the French constitution, is supposed to be used for national security in the case of defence. This generally high level of disenchantment with politics and lack of representativeness can only be countered by a return to civic forms of participation. Many important reforms initiated by LREM in recent years, for example in education but also in infrastructure, have set the course for the future. However, according to Frédéric Petit during the discussion event on 22 February, these key events do not receive the media attention they deserve. Indeed, the focus on the failures or unkept promises seems to outweigh the efforts of the executive to involve French citizens more in political decision-making processes, as currently illustrated by the Citizens' Convention for the Climate (convention citoyenne pour le climat).

Sliding to the Right - An Automatism?

Another difficulty for current French centrist politics, as in the 2017 election campaign, is to clearly distinguish itself on the right. Competing against Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement National (RN), LREM may be tempted to adopt RN themes and positions. LREM has been repeatedly accused of this, at least in recent months, in the course of the polarising debates on the so-called separatism law (loi confortant les principes de la République) - an accusation that could not be fully refuted by the media framing of a shift to the right and the eagerly awaited television duel in mid-February between Interior Minister Gérard Darmanin and Marine le Pen. However, the associated calculation to win votes from the right in this way could be reflected in dwindling support among voters from the left and moderate spectrum, according to the assessment of Dr Daniela Kallinich during the panel discussion with Ollivero and Petit. If this strategy is pursued further, Macron will become unelectable for many centre-left voters, e.g. disappointed moderate socialists, and also unattractive for classic centrist voters. At the same time, Macron will lose the most important bonus he had in 2017: the distinction from the far right and the argument that he is the lesser evil compared to Marine Le Pen.


Jeanette Süß is European Affairs Manager at the Regional Office "European Dialogue" of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Brussels.


Publication on the topic “A Closer Look at French President Macron and his “Third Way”

Recording of the Franco-German Web Talk

On the 22nd of February, FNF Europe discussed this issue with the author of the study, Dr. Daniela Kallinich, Frédéric Petit, member of the French National Assembly for the French abroad, and Thierry Ollivero, LREM officer for Central Europe and the Balkans.

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