France may be on the verge of abandoning the Fifth Republic and moving on to the Sixth Republic. But who’s counting?
Newly installed President Emmanuel Macron appointed a centrist cabinet this week ahead of next month’s parliamentary elections as part of his effort to bridge the left-right political divide, but he may find himself running into roadblocks created by the country’s current constitution.
The Fifth Republic, created by Charles de Gaulle in 1958, was designed to meet his desire for a strong head of state. However, for it to work that way, the president has to have a majority in Parliament.
De Gaulle’s constitution attempted to cure the ills of the Fourth Republic, where proportional representation created a fragmented Parliament and led to a succession of unstable governments — some 24 in the 12 years of its existence.
The first-past-the-post voting of the current constitution fostered, as it does everywhere, the emergence of two mainstream parties on the center-right and the center-left and made it likely that the president would get the parliamentary majority he needed to implement his program.
This has mostly worked, though there were some periods of “cohabitation,” where the party in opposition to the president had the majority in Parliament. This put a damper on bold initiatives, but the parties mostly remained civil enough to conduct government business.
Macron, who launched his own party last year to run for president, poses a new challenge to this majority-rule system. Although he is busily recruiting candidates to run in all 577 constituencies, it is far from sure that his untested slate will win an outright majority.
However, the Fifth Republic’s sharing of power between the president and prime minister does not lend itself to the type of coalition government common in many other European countries — or at least there’s never been a demonstration that it could work.
So rather than fall back into the instability of the Fourth Republic, there is now talk of a Sixth Republic.
“Macron has no clearly defined political constituency of his own, and unless he can create one in the space of a single month, his five years in the Élysée Palace will be hostage to struggles among the left, right, and extreme right,” think-tank director Giles Merritt wrote in Project Syndicate.
Merritt, a longtime reporter for the Financial Times, says that obituaries for France’s political parties may be premature. They could well rebound in the legislative elections and “the institution of the presidency itself may well be the main loser.”
A Sixth Republic with less concentration of power has long been a plank of the leftist parties in France. Merritt notes that Socialist President François Mitterrand pushed this idea until he was actually in office and found that he enjoyed the powers and prerogatives of being president.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon — who was among the top four finishers in the first round of the presidential election with only a whisker separating him from the others — carried on this tradition with the notion of a Sixth Republic prominent in the manifesto of his left-wing “France Unbowed” party.
This, rather than the lopsided result of the runoff vote that propelled Macron into office, is the message of the presidential election.
“In place of the partisan bipolarization, there are now four roughly even and irreconcilable political forces: the National Front, the center-right, Macron’s party, and an old-fashioned hard-left,” John Rogove commented in First Things. “What appears to be afoot, then, is a return to the multipartisan politics of the Fourth Republic, with a plurality of clearly delimited and radically opposed ideological options on offer.”
Other European countries have wrestled with this balance between stability and full democratic representation.
Germany, for instance, has a somewhat complicated system that nonetheless has worked relatively well to avoid the fragmentation of the Weimar Republic and produce stable coalitions. It is a combination of direct and proportional representation — every voter casts two ballots — with a 5% threshold to get seats in Parliament. Italy, with its 61 postwar governments, is the poster child for instability.
Macron has couched his program as a renewal of French politics moving on from the obsolete left-right divide. But his mixed cabinet of center-right and center-left is far less novel than it seems.
In terms of economic policy, it tilts decidedly to the right and the neoliberal policies of the European Union that half of French voters rejected. The prime minister as well as the economics and budget ministers come from this center-right background.
The much-touted gender equality is not really that much different than the cabinets under former President François Hollande, such as the first government of Prime Minister Manuel Valls in 2014, which was also evenly divided between men and women. Moreover, with the exception of Sylvie Goulard as armed forces (defense) minister, the women in Macron’s cabinet are largely relegated to lesser posts like health, culture and sports that often go to women.
In short, very little revolution. Opinion polling in this unprecedented situation somewhat optimistically gives Macron’s new Republic on the Move party a shot at a majority in the two-round voting next month, but the impact of his cabinet appointments remains to be seen and for that matter what French voters really think is hard to discern.
Macron’s lopsided victory in the second round was due in large part to those seeking to block National Front leader Marine Le Pen rather than to actually support the victor. One poll last week conducted by Ifop found that three-fifths of French voters don’t want Macron to get a majority in Parliament.
“I don’t see a clear majority emerging,” Ifop’s Jérôme Fourquet told Bloomberg. “We could be headed toward an ungovernable situation.”
Ungovernable at least in the framework of the Fifth Republic. Do I hear a “Sixth”?