Founded in 1958, the French Fifth Republic has been one of the longest-lasting regimes in the nation's modern history, and helped underwrite the European stability that our chattering classes declare is under attack. But that regime is now threatening to come apart because its institutional principles have been disregarded or abused.
Long-standing dissatisfaction with the established parties' failures produced the political crisis in which it was possible for Emmanuel Macron to win the presidency. But rather than remedy the crisis, Macron has intensified it. The Fifth Republic, with its powerful executive elected by majoritarian plebiscite, relies on the very populist and authoritarian principles that the chattering classes consider the source of our woes. The Fifth Republic's “authoritarianism” sets up the presidency like a monarchy, in which the president is expected to exemplify France’s greatness. Like a monarch, the president is constrained by an exacting ethic of noblesse oblige.
But what end does this ethic serve? De Gaulle managed to direct the ethic of noblesse oblige to a “populist” end, with the president acting on behalf of the French people. Achieving this popular principle meant two things. First, it meant defying the country’s entrenched elites. Whether it was the political elites, the intellectual elites, or the military elites, de Gaulle clashed with all of them to ensure that the Fifth Republic achieved the goals of the people. Second, it meant balancing the populism of Paris with the populism of the provinces. The regime only succeeds as long as the monarchical president serves both peoples. When he disregards one, the regime deteriorates. France’s civil strife is almost always a phenomenon of one form of populism turning against the other.
Each kind of populism brings different kinds of protesting. Anglo-Americans often quip that protests are France’s national pastime, but the “French protests” we're familiar with are chiefly products of Parisian populism. These are uprisings similar to “Occupy Wall Street,” in which the left-bourgeois go after a carefully selected authority in the name of a radical critique of the system—but not too radical to threaten their own way of life. They set the 10 percent against the 1 percent. And while they get much attention from media sympathizers and occur frequently, they do not threaten the regime.
Protests in the provinces are different. They look more like the 1907 “revolt of the Midi,” when winegrowers in Languedoc rose up en masse to protest unfair trade practices. This phenomenon is much more rare, and tends to focus on economic issues. But it is also much more serious. The revolt of the Midi led to mutiny in the regiment asked to suppress the revolt, and nearly brought down Clemenceau’s government.
Protests in both city and provinces are rarest of all, but are greatly significant. While the Parisian students of May 1968 receive the most attention in historical memory, arguably the greater danger came from the provinces, where the working class challenged long hours and stagnant wages. This turned May's events into a national affair. De Gaulle survived by splitting off the workers from the students, and appeasing the former. But it was a near-run thing. The danger was especially great because in those days the provinces still constituted the national economy.
That is no longer the case. According to Christophe Guilluy, the provinces have become la France périphérique: Over the course of several decades, its inhabitants have been steadily separated from the functioning parts of the global economy. They have become the plebeians of the 21st century, poor and low-income workers who are separated from political and economic power. Now that Paris holds far greater economic and political clout than in the past, Parisian populism has become gentrified. While this caste loves to talk the language of revolution, especially environmental revolution (the Parti Socialiste has rebranded itself in this way), no policy proposal it entertains threatens its way of life. They have comfortably merged a leftist environmentalist ideology with liberal economic arrangements: urban eco-liberalism.
Touting slogans like “Make the Planet Great Again,” Macron intended to further the goals of urban eco-liberalism even more dramatically than the Parti Socialiste dared to do. His aggressive increase in fuel tax aimed to combat the fact that 40 percent of France’s carbon emissions stem from automobiles. But it was a regressive tax of the most egregious sort, disproportionately targeting the plebeians of la France périphérique, those who cannot avoid using automobiles. Because they could not change their way of life, this tax could not but further impoverish the provinces' poor.
Rhetorically obedient to the popular principle of the Fifth Republic, previous governments of the left and right always paid lip service to la France périphérique; Guilluy supposedly advised Sarkozy and Hollande. However much someone like Hollande sympathized with the goals of cutting carbon emissions, he never dared to go after the provinces so directly.
Although the tax has now been rescinded, Macron has suffered severe damage. Beyond any previous government, Macron has discarded the popular principle, to reveal an overt hostility toward the plebeian class. Macron’s “center,” the urban eco-liberals, do not need to change their way of life to pursue their goals. The fanaticism of the center obliges others, whose livelihood depends on fossil fuels, to pay a penalty on their way of life. Jean-Claude Michéa calls it “Thatcherism of the left”: In pursuit of the left’s goals, the opprobrium shifts from miners to the plebeian classes who must use fossil fuels to live.
More than the standard Parisian protest that Anglo-American media portrays, the revolt of the gilets jaunes is one of those rare moments in French history when the provinces protest. The riots are diffuse, lack leadership, and are taking place not just in Paris but also throughout the whole country. It is for that reason that they are so serious. But it is astounding to see how poorly Macron’s government has managed the crisis. The Interior Minister denounced the protestors as far-right agitators—an audacious attempt to discredit protests that draw extraordinarily widespread sympathy. Recent polls show that about 80 percent of the French think the protests are justified. Moreover, only 21 percent of those who sympathize with La Republique En Marche, France's centrist party, think the protests were completely justified. Meanwhile, 70 percent of those who sympathize with the left-wing La France Insoumise and 79 percent of those who sympathize with Marine Le Pen's RN think they are completely justified. These protests, then, unite the left and the right against the center.
Macron’s emergency address to the French people on Monday demonstrates that he belatedly recognizes the seriousness of the situation. It is striking that in declaring “an economic and social emergency” he appealed to the totality of the French people and barely mentioned environmental policies (provoking an angry tweet from the leader of the Parti Socialiste). But this populist course correction is damage control. It re-assumes the rhetorical mask so often worn by past governments, and hopes the people will forget what they saw beneath it.
The Fifth Republic has only been successful when its president has both embodied noblesse oblige and sustained its populist element. François Hollande attacked the first. Scorning noblesse oblige and rejecting the office's monarchical ethos, he made himself a risible figure. Macron understands well that the monarchical ethos comes with the presidency and cannot be rejected without making the holder of the office an object of contempt. So he assumes the royal mantle. But he attacks the second. By serving up the goals of urban eco-liberalism and turning them against the plebs, Macron has exposed liberalism’s contempt for the people. They are now returning the favor. The danger is that their contempt for Macron and his liberalism will turn into contempt for the regime itself. The center’s fanaticism threatens vaster immolation.
Nathan Pinkoski is a Lecturer in Politics at Princeton University.