When he introduced the presidential system to French politics at the end of the 1950s, General De Gaulle explained it as “the meeting of a man and a nation.” A monarchist at heart, De Gaulle was not the first in France to dream of a synthesis between the will of the people and the leadership of a providential man dedicated to the service of the nation rather than a political faction.
The search for that elusive synthesis, not too say for squaring the circle, had started with the great French Revolution in the 18th century which initially sought to reconcile the monarchic institution with people’s sovereignty. Even Robespierre, who was to gain notoriety as the most sanguinary leader of Revolutionary Terror, had started his career as an ardent monarchist.
Another attempt at synthesis came when Louis Bonaparte came to power in 1848 with the intriguing title of “Prince President” which four years later was replaced by a new designation: Emperor.
The next ironic twist in the story came in 1971 when German “iron” Chancellor Bismarck insisted that France hold elections and form a republic before securing peace after its defeat by Germany.
Accordingly, the French Second Empire was dissolved and a constituent assembly was elected with monarchists in majority. Thus, the new French Third Republic was created by monarchists.
However, despite attempts by such providential men as Gambetta, the new republic never produced the ideal synthesis. After the Second World War, chastised by Nazi Germany’s experiment with a system built around a Supreme Leader, the French political elite abandoned the old dream and tried to build a parliamentary system loosely patterned on that of Great Britain. Though the system worked well domestically, it proved unable to tackle challenges posed by decolonization, and the winding down of France’s imperial legacy lost dramatically highlighted by the Algerian insurrection.
The Fifth Republic created by De Gaulle proved efficient in meeting those challenges while propelling France through half a century of political stability and economic modernization.
But what if the De Gaullian system is no longer effective in meeting the challenges of a post-industrial society in the context of globalization?
That question was most dramatically posed with the start of the French presidential campaign on March 21.
To start with, De Gaulle’s formula of “one man and one nation” seemed remoter than ever.
This time round, the presidential election is a fight among 11 pretenders, including two women, representing a mix of ideologies from Trotskyite Marxism to crypto-fascist nationalism, massing by social democratic, liberal and classical conservative brands.
This is also the first time that none of the candidates is cast as standard bearer for the past administrations. The incumbent president Francois Hollande is so unpopular that no one wants to claim to be his heir. Socialist Party candidate Benoit Hamon pretends that Hollande never existed, although he served as minister under him.
Because Hollande’s predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy shares the same unpopularity, he, too, is never mentioned not even by Francois Fillon who was his Prime Minister for five years.
The far-right candidate Marine Le Pen is also careful not to mention her father Jean-Marie who created the family business in the first place.
Casting himself as the anti-establishment champion, the far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Melanchon, has also erased his past as veteran member of the same establishment. He was Member of Parliament, Cabinet minister and European deputy.
In an election in which having no past seems to be an asset, the top prize for pastless-ness goes to Emmanuel Macron, the surprise candidate who has become the favorite of the media with a good chance of making it to the second round of voting next May.
And, yet, all these supposedly fresh faces with no baggage are backed by old forces with deep roots in French politics. Fillon enjoys the support of the old Gaullist machine, recently re-named The Republican Party, plus Catholic groups and a network of local notables. Ms. Le Pen depends on the legacy of Action Francaise, old Petainiste circles, and nostalgics of French Algeria, not to mention “skin-heads” that provide the msucle needed for street fights.
Melanchon is backed by the remnants of the Communist party and its tentacles in trade unions, plus anarchist groups specializing in street politics.
As for Hamon he has control of at least part of the Socialist Party’s machine and its antennae in trade unions.
Even the all fresh Macron, a former banker who likes to quote Racine and Moliere, is backed by old chunks of the establishment; notably the employers’ syndicate, a chunk of the Socialist Party and several semi-defunct centralist circles.
Because populism is the flavor of the day in Western democracies, all candidates in the current French election take care to help themselves at that banquet.
Populism has a long history in modern French politics, dating back to General Georges Boulanger and Pierre Poujade in the 19th and the 20th centuries.
This time populism is especially advertised through opposition to the European Union, encouraged by the Brexit vote in Great Britain. Ms. Le Pen wants to quit euro and organize a referendum for leaving the European Union. Melanchon is also close to a quitting-EU position while Hamon wants to remain in the union under conditions that no other member would grant France. Fillon is ambiguous on the subject but by advocating closer ties with Russia and Iran aims at a trajectory away from the EU.
With the exception of Macron, who is ardently pro-EU, all main candidates also advance anti-NATO and anti-American positions disguised as anti-Trump rhetoric.
Fillon, Le Pen and Melanchon are openly pro-Russian and promise to work closely with President Vladimir Putin on all major international issues. Melanchon even wants a pan-European conference to redraw the borders of the continent to meet Russia’s “concerns”. Only Macron says he will not “collaborate” with Putin while Hamon opposed Moscow’s policy of unconditional supports for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
The current campaign has revealed France as a fragmented polity that would probably be better governed under a European-style system of coalitions than a “one-man-one nation” scheme introduced by De Gaulle.
This may not be the end of the Fifth Republic, but we sure are getting close.