March 15, 2019

At UnHerd we try to cover emerging issues before they hit the headlines. Sometimes, though, it’s just as important to keep following a story after it drops off the front page.

The gilets jaunes protests in France are a case in point. Once it was clear that Emmanuel Macron would not be toppled, the British press shifted its attention back to Brexit. With his abysmal approval ratings now recovering, the French President looks much safer in his job than, say, Theresa May.

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That, however, is not the end of the story. For a start, the protests are far from over, and while the British may joke that ‘the French are always revolting’, there’s nothing typical about the events of the last few months.

In an extraordinary essay for the American Interest, Claire Berlinski describes the immense cost of the protests so far:

“According to the police, there have so far been 1,700 serious injuries among the protesters, and 1,000 among law-enforcement officers. In no normal social movement in France do you have violence like this.”

She does add, however, that the “police may well be making things worse by using weapons that cause awful wounds.”

Then there’s the economic cost:

“It is hard to put a precise figure on the economic damage the rioters have done so far. From the Arc de Triomphe to Place de la République, windows have been shuttered, covered in plywood, or smashed. Before the New Year, professional and business associations were suggesting the figure exceeded $15 billion…

“According to the Ministry of Labor, some 58,000 people have lost their jobs or been partially unemployed by the crisis.”

Berlinski also mentions the targeted vandalism of “roughly half of France’s traffic radar detection systems” – considered fair game because the protesters believe “the state was running a speeding-ticket racket.”

Clearly, the protesters consider Macron’s presidency to be fair game too. Indeed, the extent of their fury would suggest that the government is not just unpopular, but also, in their eyes, illegitimate.

But on what grounds? Macron was elected by a two-to-one margin and his supporters have a thumping majority in the French Assembly. Theresa May, Angela Merkel and Donald Trump can only dream of so convincing a mandate.

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But, as Berlinski acknowledges, there is another narrative:

“…critics have been swift to say that Macron is not popular and does not have the support of the masses. This is true: Macron was elected by white-collar professionals who amount to about 20-30 percent of the electorate. He won by default, because the alternatives were so disgusting.”

This is the problem with the French electoral system: it is a generator of negative votes. Both the President and members of the Assembly are elected through a two-round voting process – the top two candidates from the first round going through to a run-off in the second round. This encourages voting for protest parties in the first round because voters know that they can make a more serious decision in the second round. However, that second round may be between two candidates that most of the electorate didn’t vote for in the first. For instance, in the 2017 Presidential election, the combined first round vote share for Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen was just 45 per cent. Thus in the second round, most voters are effectively casting another kind of negative vote – against whichever of the final two candidates they like the least.

But it gets worse. The profile that the first round gives to protest parties has enabled the hard Right and hard Left to build their strength. Even in Presidential elections, there is a very realistic possibility of a protest candidate making it through to the run-off (as happened with Marine Le Pen). This leaves the moderate majority of voters with no choice but to elect the establishment candidate.

Berlinski says this is no argument against Macron’s legitimacy – “a vote against is as valid, electorally, as a vote for.”

Constitutionally, she’s right – but democratically, it’s a disaster. Of course, no electoral system is perfect. First past the post and proportional representation systems have their flaws, but by-and-large they encourage people and communities to make a positive choice for whoever they most prefer.

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The French system, though, is an accident waiting to happen. A slightly different first round result in 2017 could have presented the voters with a final choice between two extreme candidates. What actually happened wasn’t as bad, but is still dangerous. Everyone can see that the system hands all of the power and most of the representation to the ‘knowledge class’, while excluding those angriest about being left behind.

None of this is deliberate – the rules were drawn up decades ago – but they couldn’t be better designed to stoke up resentment.