The Five Republics of France

You may have heard of the “Fifth Republic of France” and wondered what it meant. Hasn’t France been a republic since long ago, back when they stormed the Bastille and all? Well, yes and no.

After King Louis XVI lost his head, a republic was indeed proclaimed – a rather bloody one. It didn’t last long and today is referred to as the First Republic. It was followed by a series of governments – empires, monarchies, and more republics, all the way up to today’s Fifth Republic. There were plenty of crises along the way, a coup or two, and more prime ministers than you can shake a stick at.

There’s never a dull moment when it comes to French politics! Enjoy a fun little history lesson and learn about the five republics of France in The Good Life France.

Reflections on the Revolution in France

The gilets jaunes (yellow vest) movement exploded across France last November.

Thousands of people gathered each week to block traffic and protest against the government. Driven by social media and seemingly leaderless, this protest was unlike any in living memory. And it definitely took the government by surprise.

I wondered what French people thought about this whole gilets jaunes business, so I asked some. Their answers might surprise you.

Read all about it at My French Life!

Those Crazy French Political Parties

In most countries, it’s hard for a political party to get on the ballot, but not so in France. In fact, a whopping 34 different parties were on the ballot in the recent election for the European Parliament. And not all of them are what you would call mainstream.

Do you love pirates? Does the “universal language” of Esperanto set your heart aflutter? Do you think it’s time to dispense with this democracy nonsense and bring back the King? Then France has a political party for you!

Read all about it in Frenchly!

Literature Meets French Politics

When you think of politicians, you don’t often think of literature. Yes, there are famous examples like Winston Churchill and Barack Obama, but those are exceptions. Most politicians are much more comfortable with a white paper in their hands than a copy of Pride and Prejudice.

Which makes former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls so interesting. He is fluent in four languages and reads in all of them. He was recently interviewed about the role that literature has played in both his personal and professional life–fascinating!

You can read my article about the interview at My French Life.

“Paris was not itself!”

This month marks the 50th anniversary of May, 1968, when strikes and student protests nearly brought down the French government. I recently talked to three people who participated in or lived through these tumultuous times about their experiences. At the time, one was a French university student, another a French factory worker, and the third an American grad student doing research for his PhD. Their three different perspectives are fascinating.

You can read the entire article at Frenchly.

Macron’s Mascara Faux Pas

French President Emmanuel Macron has been in hot water lately because of his… makeup? Since moving into the Palais de l’Élysée three months ago, he has reportedly spent over $30,000 to look good. Apparently, makeup artist Natacha M. is assez cher.

The French are shocked — this after Macron demanded deep budget cuts?! Twitter is, of course, amused. The Elysée has promised to cut back on future make-up spending, but is this actually a lot for a French leader to spend on their signature style? Let’s look at history to see how others have done it.

You can read the full story at Frenchly.

Food Fight!

The French Presidential Debate

France will hold its presidential election in just over two weeks and last night was the big debate. These usually only pit the leading candidates against each other.   This tends to weed out the extremists and make for a more reasonable debate.

Not this time. And it sure was fun to watch.

I guess the folks at BFM TV decided that since there were already extremists among the leading candidates, what’s a few more? So for the first time, every presidential candidate was on stage together, all 11 of them, ranging from the extreme left to the extreme right.

Want a Trotskyist? No problem, there were two – the candidates from the Worker’s Fight and New Anti-Capitalist parties. Plus there was Jean-Luc Mélenchon of France Undefeated, who had nice things to say about Karl Marx.

Want a proto-fascist? Ok, we’ve only got one, Marine Le Pen of the National Front, but she comes by it honestly – her dad is one, too. I guess it’s the family profession.

And what’s an election without a man of the people? My favorite was the guy whose main qualification was, “I’m the son of a shepherd and the brother of a shepherd.” He’s definitely got the shepherd vote locked up.

Eleven candidates on stage together reminded me of the early Republican primaries in the US. But unlike those debates, in France no single candidate can dominate the debate because each gets the same amount of time to speak. It’s a nice way to let the minor party candidates show their stuff. Except when some of them are crazy.

The winner was Emmanuel Macron, who currently leads in the polls. He didn’t say anything remarkable but he didn’t make any mistakes, either, which was the most important thing. He came across as smart, centrist and ready for the big leagues.

The loser was François Fillon, the once-leading candidate who has been laid low by a corruption scandal. He has the most experience and has some excellent ideas about the French economy. He may still make a comeback. But last night he tried to look calm and above the fray and instead came across apathetic.

Plus he had to deal with the itchy hands guy.

The candidates stood at podiums at the bottom of an amphitheater full of their supporters. It was so steep that when a candidate spoke, you could see just a few of the people sitting behind them – the faces of people in the first row and the laps of people in the second row.

Unfortunately for Fillon, when he gave his opening remarks some guy in the second row decided to scratch an itch on his hand. And scratch. And scratch. So while Fillon spoke, you saw this pair of hands just to the side of his head, scratching and scratching. It was mesmerizing – you couldn’t look away. I thought maybe we should call a doctor for this poor guy.

The Trotskyists were the most animated candidates. The woman from Worker’s Fight had only one volume level – shouting – and blamed everything on capitalists who exploit workers “because it’s in their DNA.” The man from New Anti-Capitalists spoke so fast it was unbelievable. And he never seemed to take a breath. I’m pretty sure he had twelve espressos right before coming on stage.

The debate was less than edifying, with lots of finger pointing. Everyone and everything you can imagine was blamed for France’s ills. Except for the French themselves, of course.

It was the fault of capitalism, immigrants, big bosses, Romanians, “the system,” the European Union, globalization, Muslims, and bankers. There were so many scapegoats milling around on stage that at one point they had to shoo some off to make room for more.

A few solutions were proposed and some were, um, interesting. One was to reduce the workweek even further, from its current 35 hours down to 32. Another was to make layoffs illegal. A third was to “temporarily” nationalize some businesses.

And we wonder why the French economy suffers.

The high point came when the New Anti-Capitalist guy went after Le Pen. She’s a populist and presents herself as the “anti-system” candidate. She’s also caught in a corruption scandal of her own, accused of taking public money for fake jobs. But she can’t be personally prosecuted because she is a member of the European Parliament and has immunity.

Pointing his finger and talking even faster than usual, the Anti-Capitalist guy said, “You steal from the till. And then you, who are anti-system, protect yourself with Parliamentary immunity. But when we, the workers, are summoned by the police, we don’t have worker’s immunity – we have to go.”

“You’re anti-system? That’s bullsh*t!”

For once, Le Pen was at a loss for words. Which was nice.

Can the Radical Centrists Win in France?

A wave of populism has been washing over the political world – first Brexit, then Trump, and soon perhaps the Netherlands.

But the big country to watch is France, which has long had a strong populist party in the National Front. Its leader, Marine Le Pen, currently leads in polls for the upcoming French presidential election. France was one of the founding members of the European Union and today is arguably the lynchpin. If Le Pen wins, it could signal the end of the European project.

Most people are focused on the French presidential election. But the legislative election, which happens right after it, could be even more important. Let’s look at both.

The Presidential Election

To start, it helps understand how the two-round French electoral system works. Phineas Rueckert recently wrote an excellent article about this in Frenchly, which you can find here.

There are four candidates who could plausibly win the presidency. Arrayed across the political spectrum from left to right, they are: Benoit Hamon of the Socialist party, Emmanuel Macron of En Marche !, François Fillon of the Republican Party and Marine Le Pen of the National Front.

Normally, the election would feature a runoff between the candidates of the two main political parties, the Socialists and the Republicans. But this is no normal year.

The Socialists are the party of current French president François Hollande. He is widely considered a failure, with the lowest ratings of any French president, and is not standing for reelection.

This has thrown his party into disarray and led to the election of a candidate who represents the left of the left. Hamon campaigned on a platform of a universal minimum income and a 32-hour workweek. While this thrills the activist base of the Socialist party, it marginalizes him with the larger electorate. Hamon will be lucky to get 15% of the vote.

The Republicans would normally be expected to profit from this turmoil in the Socialist party. Their candidate, Fillon, is a respected former prime minister. He is deeply conservative and moved even further to the right in the Republican primary.

Fillon was positioning himself to appeal to supporters of the extreme-right National Front in the general election. It was a reasonable strategy when he was the favorite to win the presidency. But then the Pénélopegate scandal engulfed his campaign.

Pénélope is Fillon’s wife. Fillon has presented himself as a kind of Mr. Clean, but then evidence emerged that Pénélope and two of their sons have been paid over $1 million in government funds for possibly fictitious jobs. The ensuing scandal has tarred Fillon as “just another corrupt politician” and he has plummeted in the polls.

With both major parties in bad shape, this should be Le Pen’s moment. She is an outsider at a time when conventional candidates are disdained. She is a populist at a time when populism is ascendant. Her party has been gaining in strength over the last several national elections and she currently leads in the polls. But three things will probably cause the presidency to elude her grasp.

First, while she has a solid base of support – approximately one third of the electorate – the opposing parties tend to team up against National Front candidates in the second round of elections. This has cost her party victories in the past and is expected to do so again in the presidential election.

Second, Le Pen is facing her own fake job scandal. Her party has a history of corruption and has been the target of numerous government investigations. Le Pen has been able to shrug these off in the past by arguing that it’s just “the system” out to get her.

But that tactic won’t work this time because of Pénélopegate, which has entrapped a leading member of “the system.” The more news coverage Pénélopegate gets, the more it reminds voters that Le Pen, as well as Fillon, is just another corrupt politician.

Third, Le Pen is no longer the new new thing. Since taking over her party in 2011, she has benefited from being the fresh face in French politics. But that role is now being played by our last presidential contender, Emmanuel Macron.

At 39, Macron is young for a presidential candidate. He has had a limited political career, serving as Economy Minister for just two years under Hollande. He has never held elective office.

While this thin resume would normally disqualify Macron, it is helping him in this year of outsiders. He is independently wealthy and does not seem to have been touched by the usual political corruption. And the French find his personal life fascinating, as he is married to his former high school teacher – who is 24 years his senior.

Most importantly, Macron benefits from the political space left vacant by his opponents. The leftist party has moved to the left and the rightist party has moved to the right, leaving a gaping hole in the political center. Macron is a classic centrist, a pro-business former banker who served in a Socialist government. He doesn’t have to contort himself in order to stake out a position between the major parties.

Macron has recently joined forces with François Bayrou, the leader of the centrist MoDem party, further cementing his position in the political center. Macron has been climbing in the polls and is pulling close to Le Pen. The combination of his political positioning, his clean record and his status as the shiny new face of French politics make him the current favorite to win the presidency.

Then What? The Legislative Election

France has a political system that is kind of a cross between those of the US and UK. Like the US, it elects its president directly. Like the UK, it has a prime minister who is elected by the legislature. Together they run the country, with the president playing the role of CEO and the prime minister the COO. The prime minister runs the government and the cabinet reports to him or her.

French parliamentary elections take place a few weeks after the presidential election. Normally, the party that wins the presidency also wins a majority in the parliament. When this happens, the president nominates a prime minister, who is then approved by parliament. The prime minister then names a cabinet, in consultation with the president.

But sometimes the president and the prime minister come from different parties, creating “cohabitation.” Cohabitation is usually a recipe for conflict and inaction, as our own experience in the US shows.

What is interesting about Macron is that he is an independent candidate. There is no party behind him. He has created what he calls a “movement,” En Marche !, that functions like a party. But it is still immature and is not yet organized enough to win a national legislative election with hundreds of seats in play.

While Macron is actively recruiting candidates and will win some seats, it is hard to see En Marche ! gaining a majority in parliament. And given the state of the other parties, it is hard to see one of them winning a majority, either. This opens the path to a functioning parliamentary coalition.

Macron is uniquely qualified to make this happen. Running as a centrist, with relatively weak ties to the Socialist party, he can make deals without fear of treading on party orthodoxy. Together with Bayrou, I expect him to build a cabinet with members from multiple parties. This team would then drive a legislative agenda with support from centrists from all parties.

This will require both skill and luck. With his limited government experience, Macron will need to team up with someone who is skilled in the dark arts of legislative sausage making. And there is always the risk that a fractured legislature falls into bickering and stasis.

But the people of France, like those in the US and other countries, are tired of division and extremes. People want to see policies enacted that are reasonable and are not driven by ideology. There is a real chance that France will be the country where the populist wave dissipates and a radically centrist government shows a new way forward.