For the last six years, President Emmanuel Macron of France has taken full advantage of institutional mechanisms to impose his hyper-presidential approach on executive power. But the absence of an absolute parliamentary majority has disrupted the smooth running of his system.
A fourth prime minister in six years is an example of this. And the choice of Gabriel Attal does not guarantee an exit from this political impasse. But at least he has a similar political approach to his mentor.
Majority rule, a pillar of the presidential system
Since 1962, the Fifth Republic has rested on a solid base: “majority rule”. Here, the head of the executive, elected by direct universal suffrage, disposes of a large parliamentary majority to pass laws in service of their political programme. And if the parliamentary majority is uncooperative, special constitutional powers (Article 49.3, allowing for the adoption of a law without a vote) can bypass anyone resisting the power of the presidential majority.
It was said that the institutions of the Fifth Republic would be weakened the day that the presidential and the parliamentary majority clashed. Yet, the three “cohabitations” (1986-88, 1993-95, 1997-2002) have proved that France could be ruled in this way, with each head of the executive taking on all their various functions.
The weakening of the prime ministerial function
Nevertheless, in 2000 the political class reduced the presidential mandate to five years and inversed the electoral calendar. The aim was to ensure that the legislative elections followed the election of a new president and would thus become a sort of ratification of the president by the people; opposition voters would have lost momentum while the president’s supporters would be more than ready to campaign. This would leave the president with an absolute majority to govern and apply their programme.
Majority rule is thus strengthened: the presidential programme de facto becomes the legislative agenda and the prime minister is demoted to the rank of presidential collaborator, tasked with loyally applying directives from the Elysée. This dynamic was possible before the reform of term limits, but it has become even more blatant since Nicolas Sarkozy and Emmanuel Macron embody – to excess, some might say – this presidential tendency even if the latter promised he would change for the second act of his mandate.
Emmanuel Macron’s style of political management
Since then, Emmanuel Macron has managed the country like a CEO. He surrounds himself with a close-knit guard, acting as a board of directors, in a way that appears shadowy to French voters. There are frequent changes of the managing director – in this case, the prime minister – to reinvigorate the team – the government – tasked with fulfilling the objectives drawn up by the CEO. As a result, we are already onto the fourth in six and a half years compared to the Fifth Republic when prime ministers remained in their role on average for two years and 10 months. Moreover, the Parliament strongly resembles a general assembly of stakeholders who only serve to rubberstamp laws. That is to say, as long as the presidential team control the voting rights of more than 50% of stakeholders.
These intricate mechanisms grind to a halt as soon as there is no parliamentary majority. For the last year, the executive has struggled to find a majority to vote through essential legislation. The presidential executive used and abused the electoral system with Article 49.3 and conceded ground ideologically to the far right to pass the law on immigration. This was forced through by twisting the defences of “the left-wing flank” of the Renaissance party and by turning away from Macron’s positioning as a candidate. Macron himself can credit his victory to an attempt to block Marine Le Pen, having declared to left-wing voters who rallied to him (by default) that the vote put him in their debt.
And thus, Macron can boast of passing the law but the victory is Pyrrhic. Rather than displaying Emmanuel Macron’s ability to get a result without a stable parliamentary majority, the law’s forced parturition has in fact exposed his weakness.
The undeserved disgrace of Elisabeth Borne
Thus, far from recompensing a loyal prime minister who knew how to pass laws using ill-thought parliamentary procedures, Macron seems to be making her pay for her divergent opinions during the debacle of the immigration law (and for not silencing certain ministers and other Macronians).
In the same way, we can understand a somewhat unexpected outburst of the president when he celebrated the talents of Gérard Depardieu by asserting – unconvincingly – that the Légion d’honneur has nothing to do with morality, regardless of the Académie Française’s definition of it as “the sentiment of a moral dignity”. The president also found himself spreading fake news by implying that journalists from France 2 had edited his remarks. This failure of political communication, which was very worrying for feminists, could be seen as a way of putting down the Minister of Culture as he himself had criticised Depardieu’s remarks and had repudiated the law on immigration.
Same challenges, new prime minister
The arrival of a new figure to symbolise the next stage of the mandate will not change the political situation. The search for new voices is limited: which dead end will they choose?
Whomever he chooses, Emmanuel Macron will remain the only decision maker, a hyper president who decides everything and who is accountable only to voters. He will continue to be confronted by the heavy challenge of coming up with a credible narrative to justify his second term to the French. The question will remain, as he tries to leave his mark on history, of what he embodies and whether “Macronism” has an ideological backbone or not. Because the bright idea that got him elected in 2017 of bypassing the right/left divide has mostly turned into an opportunist-type of pragmatism. His positioning is so unclear that his actions can appear to be on the right, in the mode of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, with very pro-business economic policies.
The ‘Attali’ report: a Macronian bible
There is a document that acts as a directive for Emmanuel Macron, even though he doesn’t shout about it from the roof tops: the “Attali” report from the Commission for the liberation of French growth. Ordered by Nicolas Sarkozy – who was then president – the rapporteur was a young ambitious graduate of France’s prestigious grande ecole_, a certain… Emmanuel Macron.
Re-read the 2008 report and you will find all the mantras of Macronism.
“Foster the flourishing of key new sectors”
(that is to say the infamous start-up nation).
“Facilitate competition, business creation and growth by implementing modern ways of financing, reducing business costs, and cutting red tape.”
“Create the conditions for competition, social mobility and geographic mobility. Allow everyone to work better and harder and to change job more easily.”
“The State and other public bodies need extensive reform. Their slice of the common wealth must be reduced […] to make way for differentiation and experimentation.”
(Removal of certain statuses in the civil service; the multiplication of exemptions; and experimentation in terms of hiring civil servants…)
“Encourage international mobility (significantly with smoother delivery of visas to student, researchers, artists, foreign workers, particularly for those sectors in need).”
The implementation of these measures, listed in 2008, is starting to slow down, either because they have been achieved, or because there are political roadblocks resulting from the lack of a parliamentary majority (like the law on immigration), or because they are no longer feasible given current global realities.
Attal, Macronien style at Matignon
A final extract from this 16-year-old report serves as a herald of Macronism:
“Before throwing oneself into action, one must not hesitate. Political power knows that the French want reform, that they believe in reform if it is socially just and economically efficient, and they expect it to be implemented with a fanfare.”
Emmanuel Macron cannot stop repeating that one must not yield when reforms meet massive protests, as we saw during the pension reform. And that’s where the appointment of Gabriel Attal makes sense, compared with Elisabeth Borne and her style of restraint; she is details oriented, and eschews political posturing for the attitude of a slightly rough technocrat.
During his brief time as education minister, Gabriel Attal showed that he was an excellent communicator; able to present himself as decisive and ready to take strong and symbolic decisions quickly. He is a confident and clear speaker, apt at drawing from nostalgic ideals but deploying a right-wing discourse (he advocates for a return to a style of education of the far-distant past, and one that is mostly mythical). The skills of a smooth operator largely explain his appointment.
Gabriel Attal has the two-pronged mission of spearheading the campaign for the European elections – expected to be rocky – and of spreading the message that Macronism’s reformist ambition remains intact and its attainments possible. Loyal from the outset, he owes his entre political career to Emmanuel Macron and embodies the youth like his mentor did before him. Gabriel Attal is the Director General but he is also the Director of Communications of the business and of brand “Macron”. But for how long? In the context of no parliamentary majority and of social discontent, and when the hyper-presidential approach is put into practice alongside a managerial rationale, where each minister has contract objectives, the turn-over accelerates.
Translation from French into English by Fleur Macdonald