France’s democratic institutions are failing like never before. This September 2020’s legislative elections saw record low turnout rates as little as 13% in the districts where they were held. The election in which candidates from various political parties ran for government positions saw voter turnout decrease by 33% in some districts since the last time these elections took place in 2017. These unprecedented results make the future of democracy in France look uncertain but also very concerning.
This is not the only indication of the government’s decreasing popularity. Polls carried out in September by news outlet BFMTV show that since the beginning of the pandemic, over two thirds of French people do not trust the government in containing the virus and think they have done a terrible job already, since the outbreak. In addition, recent restrictions on social gatherings and the closing down of restaurants have been fiercely protested by the people of Marseille and Aix en Provence, with over half the population (53%) opposing these measures, and over 70% who feel like these measures were imposed on them against their will.
There is an increasing divide between the political elites and the people. Levels of opposition have never been higher and people who feel neglected and disadvantaged have started expressing their resentment against the french government. The poorly managed pandemic brought unemployment to its highest and the economy to its lowest with thousands of businesses shutting down, and rising prices and poverty. Despite the levelling-off of the yellow vests protests, public outcry re-surfaced as issues of police brutality and racial profiling surfaced, with tens of thousands of people protesting in June for racial equality.
Support for populism has also been rising. Now, at least one French out of two claims to have voted at least once for France’s populist parties. During the 2017 elections, the unthinkable happened: Marine Le Pen’s ethnic-nationalist party, the RN, made it to the final round of elections; the first time in the party’s 50 years of existence. Thankfully, she faced Macron’s centre right party, the LREM, who was publicly endorsed by all other centre parties, in a general attempt to act as guardrails of democracy and block out populism from the political arena, just as Levitsky and Ziblatt explain it in How Democracies Die . Nonetheless, with the recent election which showed no support at all for Macron’s party, it makes me wonder if there will even be a second chance for the incumbent or for any centre party at all.
Democratic institutions are collapsing, and the voting process itself is being lost. The French people are, through their levels of participation and support indicating that electing an official over another systematically results in disappointment and that the system itself needs to change. This increasing divide is only further alienating politicians from the people and painting them as corrupt elites rather than the enablers of progress and democracy. Even more so, the government is losing its legitimacy and its ability to make decisions on behalf of the country as, how is a regime democratic if it defends the interests of a minority of the population on which elections are based? By carrying on with elections and resisting opposition the incumbent Macron and his party only appear authoritarian, undemocratic and are only causing more division.
This loss of trust and demand for change will certainly be exploited by the populist parties who thrive in such hostile and polarised environments as Mullër explains in What is Populism? Marine Le Pen’s party the National Rally aims to revive the « true French values » the destruction of which she entirely blames on immigration and the spread of radical Islam. On the other hand, is Jean-Luc Melenchon and his party the Un-submissive France which aims to stop the wealthy 1% from its exploitation of the working class, seeking to redistribute all this « stolen » wealth. This dying support for liberal values and equal representation has already manifested itself, with the rise in social and ethnic cleavages shown by rising antisemitism, racism, and xenophobia. In recent years, acts of anti-semitism increased by 74%, and 63% of French people believe that « there are too many immigrants in France ». These numbers don’t show a big part of the French people as being tolerant nor interested in the idea of democracy at all.
Such circumstances can certainly remind us of the period of the French Revolution of 1789, when France was completely shattered socially, politically, and economically. A time when the people literally took the power into their own hands and removed the government in place. Although this period was characterised by complete chaos and instability, it ultimately initiated the establishment of a fairer more democratic society that we know today. What many people forget however, is that France did not become a democracy immediately following the revolution, but was in fact taken over by force by a tyrannical military general by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte. Furthermore the years that followed his rule were nothing of democratic. Censorship and dissent on opposition was heavy, and political rights and freedoms were practically non-existent.
One thing Napoleon’s rise to power should teach us is, while various groups were fighting over who should have power and what should be done, the lack of central authority and organisation paved the way for more organised leaders to take over. In other words, the French Revolution in the immediate, did not lead to democracy but plunged the country back into autocracy and deprivation where they had started from. Today, with all of this social and political tension, it seems like a revolution is not far from breaking out. Now, of course as Nancy Bermeo points out in discussing Democratic Backsliding, democratic backsliding has become much more subtle and open-ended coups are now much less tolerated especially in Western Europe. Indeed, an autocrat would at first have to play the rules of the game and would take longer to establish. However, it would not take long before institutional checks and balances are broken down and « authoritarianization » takes place as Kendall-Taylor and Frantz call it. Therefore, the incumbent and the centre parties must find their way back to the people, before the people give in to the populist illusion, or in other words, the beginning of the end for democracy.
I agree that France has seen seriously concerning socioeconomic and political divides in the last few years, although as the author mentions, the French did succeed in “gatekeeping” its democracy by eliminating Le Pen during the 2017 elections’ second and final round. It’s therefore true that the RN and the “Unsubmissive France” probably represent the biggest threat to France’s democracy, and as a French citizen myself, I am extremely concerned that Le Pen will once again end up making it to the 2022 elections’ second round. I think that persisting acts of terrorism also fuels Le Pen’s anti-immigrant and anti-EU arguments, convincing people to support her. I agree, it’s a slow and subtle way to rise to power…
Nevertheless, I also believe that witnessing the U.S. under Trump for the last four years have also made more people aware of what it would mean to have Le Pen as President. As unhappy as they might appear, many French are actually proud to have Macron instead of a Trump in power… Moreover, although economic discontent is real, I also think most people realize the reality of things, and recognize that it’s not just France that’s experiencing economic troubles, but the world in general. In addition, some yellow vests have also firmly condemned their own movement’s violence, saying they supported the ends, but not the means – so there might be hope of avoiding a French Revolution part II !
Furthermore, although I think the author raises important facts; a lot of the protests and civil unrest regarding the current state of emergency has been highly “dramatized” by the media, both national and foreign. From an outsider perspective, protests throughout France give the impression that a revolution is ongoing, but in reality, nothing much has changed.
Finally, I just want to add that, having been in France during the 2020 legislative elections, I think the record turnout rate wasn’t really due to the French people’s lack of concern for democracy, but more due to health concerns. Many people disapproved of the decision to have upheld the first round in March 2020 when the pandemic had just started, so many did not want to vote at the second round in fear of catching coronavirus.
Hello Anh-Lise, I appreciate your response. You talk about being concerned by the rise of populist parties, but say that you don’t think they stand a chance. But then why be concerned in the first place? Just like you, I would love to think that « the French people” in reality appreciate president Macron and are aware of the dangers of electing a populist leader, but with the results I mentioned in my post, I just don’t think that conclusion makes sense. Have you been reading how much support for populism has been rising in Europe in the past few years? Do you also think this isn’t concerning and populist parties don’t stand a chance? I find this general rise in anti-immigration and racist feelings coupled by declining support for the government to be perfectly compatible with support for populist parties, and I find it puzzling how you don’t see the connection there.
Also, while it is true the yellow vest movement was sensationalised by the media, do you not remember how violent it became and how people set fire to buildings and were armed? You could say they were not part of the movement, but do you really think this whole movement supports Macron? I strongly recommend looking at this source: http://www.slate.fr/story/170766/qui-sont-gilets-jaunes-et-soutiens-portrait-robot-categories-socio-professionnelles. Scroll to when they talk about what party do the supporters of the movement support, and you’ll find over 60% are for the extremes (with 40% for Marine Le Pen), so it clearly doesn’t seem like they want Macron in power…
Also, to me it seems like you’re comparing Trump to Le Pen, and I completely disagree with you on that. Trump is closer to Macron than he is to Le Pen in my opinion, and you should really look at the history of the far-right party because I think things would be far worse under Le Pen than it has under Trump.
Also, do you genuinely believe the turnout rate was so low because of health concerns? Have you read the statistics on how much people resent the government’s decisions that I mentioned, and the protests about Adamants Traoré in June where about 23000 people gathered? People clearly don’t care at all, as long as they’re young and healthy, just like in the US, they only start worrying when it affects them, so I really don’t think this record low turnout rate of 80% is just some anomaly caused by paranoia, when people have literally been resisting the government ever since the pandemic’s outbreak.
I think we should be frightened of the next elections, truly frightened. Le Pen almost made it last elections, and people are even more divided and polarised than they were at that time, so no, I think a revolution is very realistic, and we should seriously consider the election of a populist party as a possibility.