French Democracy

Erosion of the Republic

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    French voters are facing a crisis of confidence in the political system ahead of the upcoming elections, which has resulted in giving populists a stronger voice. Meanwhile, in Germany, political parties are welcoming new members in droves as political interest experiences a new renaissance.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • 40 percent of French voters say they are disappointed by politics, ranging from angry to disgusted, to ambivalent.
    • Unemployment in France has scarcely dropped below 9 percent in the past 30 years.
    • German political parties have seen an upswing in membership in the face of rising populism.
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    Audio

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80151809 Reuters France election apathy
Marche on by. Source: Reuters

The title of the new book by Brice Teinturier, one of the best pollsters in France, roughly translates to “No More F**ks to Give”. The title gets right to the heart of the apathy Mr. Teinturier says he sees in France. He’s the head of the Ipsos Institute, which has found that a large portion of the electorate is weary of French politicians, the country’s political parties and simply can’t be bothered to care about the wider political system. In France – the birthplace of the republic, human rights and civil liberties – around one third of potential voters have given up on the democracy.

But there is evidence against this pessimistic analysis. The French are junkies for politics. For the last six months, they’ve been fixated on the campaigns for the upcoming presidential elections. More than 4 million participated in the Conservative primary, while 2 million voted in the Socialist primary. The two presidential candidates’ debates were watched by 9 million people, and several thousand attended town hall meetings every week. As many as 70,000 supporters were at a demonstration for the left-wing candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. All of this speaks to an engaged electorate and a healthy democracy.

But those statistics could also be a sign of a population divided. Twenty-eight percent of the French do not want to vote on Sunday, including those with higher education. These non-voters say the spectacle of the parties is offensive or they say the political elites haven’t been concerned with the interests of the country for some time. According to Ipsos, 40 percent of the French say they are disappointed by politics, 13 percent are “angry” about it, 20 percent feel “disgust” and 9 percent are indifferent. The last two categories form the core of voters with what Mr. Teinturier describes as a “kiss my ass attitude.” In just three years, this group has grown by almost 10 percent.

40 percent of the French say they are disappointed by politics, 13 percent are “angry” about it, 20 percent feel “disgust” and 9 percent are indifferent.

By way of comparison, Germany has seen a renaissance in political awareness and engagement.

The SPD, which has gained significant ground since Martin Schulz’s nomination for chancellor, has also massively added to its membership ranks. Between Pegida and AfD nationally – as well as Brexit and the US election abroad – politics seems to be gaining importance for Germans again. The popularity of the pro-European citizens’ initiative Pulse of Europe also shows a new engagement by the electorate.

At the party level, more than 16,000 members have joined the SPD since the start of this year, which is more than all of 2016. At now around 440,000 members, those numbers make the SPD the country’s strongest party. The CDU has about 430,000 members.

Susanne, 26, had already sent her application to join SPD in December. “First came Brexit, then Trump, then the right-wing populism throughout Europe. It’s just time to do something,” she says.

That is in a stark contrast to what’s happening in neighboring France, where the population is typically more enthusiastic about politics. But that enthusiasm could also explain the shift – the French have high expectations of their government and politicians, but that can also lead to swift disappointment.

Four years ago, President François Hollande was elected by a large majority. Today, 80 percent consider his administration a failure. The state distributes well over half of the national income, but it is still widely felt that the market determines everything and the state is passive. Railing against globalization is de rigueur. Even middle class voters criticize social liberal candidate Emmanuel Macron as a “candidate for creeping globalization.”

Four years ago, President François Hollande was elected by a large majority. Today, 80 percent consider his administration a failure.

For almost 30 years, the country’s elite has not succeeded in cutting mass unemployment, despite it being the top concern for 93 percent of its citizens. This disconnect is one significant reason why people are turning away from the political parties. Membership rates are pitifully low. The parties are suffering from thin ranks as well as the inability to reach a common ground. Throughout the entire legislative period, several dozen Socialists have tried to block Mr. Hollande’s timid reforms. When they failed to do so, they staged a vote of no confidence against their fellow party member, Prime Minister Manuel Valls.

Now Mr. Valls is getting his revenge by not campaigning for the Socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, a leftist who was a frequent nuisance to both Mr. Hollande and Mr. Valls. Like many other Socialist ministers and deputies, Mr. Valls has endorsed Mr. Macron, who last year formed his own party, En Marche!. The Socialist party has ceased to be a closed formation. “We will soon have two socialist parties, one right-leaning one under Valls and one left-leaning one perhaps under Hamon,” says Jacques Séguéla, a communications expert who worked for François Mitterrand, the founder of France’s Socialist party and president of the country from 1981 to 1995.

The situation on the right is not much better. The conservative Republicans are divided into supporters of Nicolas Sarkozy, the liberal ex-prime minister Alain Juppe and the scandal-plagued candidate François Fillon. If Mr. Fillon loses the election, the Republicans could break apart. At the height of the outrage over Mr. Fillon’s relatives receiving government payments, there was discussion of finding an alternative candidate, but the party could not agree on a substitute.

The French law on parties and the presidential system favors the formation of parties that degenerate into political action committees for presidents, without any real party life, democratic structures or a uniting foundation. This clashes with a modern French society that demands flat hierarchies and participation in, as well as influence over, civil society. Nevertheless, only the leftist populists Mr. Mélenchon and Mr. Hamon are calling for a “Sixth Republic,” without exactly saying what a new French constitution should look like. They’ve called for more referenda, public opinion polls for parts of the budget and a slightly different senate, but they don’t want to change the strong role of the president – just like Mr. Macron, who was quipping about the “French monarchy” in 2015. Today, he’s satisfied with a proposal that the president should report annually to a panel of citizens.

Given the growing distrust of politicians and the gains of the populists in France, the presidential system appears to be the last remaining hope to guarantee political stability for the French elite. But this stability is looking more and more like an illusion. In the first round of voting, almost half of the electorate is expected to vote for parties calling for the country to abandon the euro and the European Union. It’s an admission of failure for a founding member of the European Union.

Thomas Hanke is Handelsblatt’s correspondent in Paris. To contact the author: hanke@handelsblatt.com