French democracy in crisis: Macron lacks support, opposition also powerless

One year ago today, Emmanuel Macron was re-elected as president of France. Yet no one seems to be in the mood for a party. Macron is doing badly in the polls: only 26 percent of the French still trust him.

Protest signs against Macron, at a protest earlier this month – AFP

Demonstrations have been taking place across France against Macron’s pension reforms since January. This leads to concerns about the state of the country. “We are in the worst democratic crisis France has seen in decades,” said historian and sociologist Pierre Rosanvallon. Political scientist Adrien Broche sums up: “There is a social crisis, there is a political crisis and more than three-quarters of the French say that French democracy is in bad shape. In short: all signals are on red.”


From day one relatively little support


What’s going on in France? For that we have to go back in time. On April 24, 2022, Emmanuel Macron won the presidential election for the second time. He had already served five years as head of state and was therefore allowed by the voters to stay in office for another five years.\


But it was not a victory with flying colors. Many French people did not vote. As a result, Macron ultimately received the support of only 38.5 percent of all French voters: a minority.
Legally it didn’t matter. The winner is the one with the most votes. But there were warnings about a president with relatively little public support.


Two months later, parliamentary elections were held in France. Macron’s party became the largest, but failed to win an absolute majority. From now on he was forced to negotiate with the opposition before passing bills.


The declining turnout also played a role in the background. The enthusiasm to vote has been decreasing for years among the French. For example, only 46 percent of the French entered the voting booth in the parliamentary elections. By way of comparison: in the Netherlands, the turnout in the last parliamentary elections was 78.7 percent.


President vs. population


In that climate, Emmanuel Macron began his second term in office. Raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 was the first major reform in that new political context: with little public support as president, and without a majority in parliament.


President Macron tried to overcome those obstacles. He initially wanted to raise the retirement age to 65 years, but because of social resistance he made a concession and made it 64 years. The resistance remained the same.,


Macron negotiated in parliament with the conservative opposition to gain support for his plans. That also failed; there was no majority. The result: the president pushed through a plan that the French did not like. He simply sidelined parliament because most MPs would vote against.


Meanwhile, three months of strikes and demonstrations by millions of French people have taken place, making the pension protests among the largest in French history. “The vote of the street should not outweigh the vote of the electorate,” the president said. He meant: the increase in the retirement age was in his election manifesto, so the voter knew what he was opting for. In fact, there is no in-between. But that ‘voter’s vote’ is the 38.5 percent of the French who voted for him. That is what many protesters mean when they say that Macron is not “the people’s president.”


The pension protests exposed the legitimacy problem warned about a year ago. Macron has too little support from the French and too few friends in parliament. Critics say Macron has driven voters away and antagonized the opposition.


Weak opposition


Macron’s opponents cannot make a fist either. The opposition in parliament is hugely divided. They fail to offer an alternative together or in coalitions. And the trade unions have mobilized millions of French people in recent months, but the result has been nil: the protest has had no effect. The pension crisis has only produced losers. “The crisis we are going through has not been good for anyone,” philosopher Florent Guénard said last month. “Democracy is divided and weakened. Emmanuel Macron is our legitimate president. But ‘legitimate’ does not mean you can do what you want. A president has responsibilities: he must listen.”


Emmanuel Macron still has four years left as president. He is now plotting a route for the next hundred days. In that short period of time, new policy plans must be launched, and he also wants to regain the confidence of the French.