When my daughter was eight years old, she came to me in tears and complained that Jean-Pierre Raffarin had killed her cat. Mr Raffarin, a sweet man, was then the French Prime Minister. He had never met my daughter Clare, or her cat.
He had, however, made a minor adjustment to pension rules which meant that Madeleine, our next-door neighbour in Normandy, Clare’s surrogate grandmother, had been obliged to return to work. In Madeleine’s frequent absences a semi-wild cat that she and Clare had befriended had vanished, presumed dead. So, Madeleine concluded, Monsieur Raffarin was to blame for the death of their cat.
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The constitution and conventions of the French Fifth Republic provide for a double-headed, or chauffeur-driven, government. The president is in power but not at the wheel; the prime minister runs the country day-to-day. The president controls foreign and defence policy and sets the course for the nation. In Charles de Gaulle’s conception of things, it was the prime minister’s job to deal with “events, dear boy,” and become unpopular. The president should remain aloof, monarchical and — in theory — adored by his people. Jean-Pierre Raffarin, in becoming the object of blame for the death of a semi-wild cat, was doing more or less what Le Général had intended.
That was 18 years ago. If the same incident occurred today, there is no doubt who would be to blame — not Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, but President Emmanuel Macron. Something has gone awry with De Gaulle’s grand plan, now 61 years old, for governing a country that he thought was ungovernable.
The age of Facebook and Twitter, the decay of the traditional media, and the decline of deference, has made the notion of wholesale power without detailed responsibility unsustainable. The French people now take the view that they elect a president to run the country — not just to represent and guide the nation. If things go wrong, even if they do not go very wrong, it is the president in the Elysée Palace that they blame; they tend to be forgiving, or indifferent, towards the man (there has only once been a woman) in the Palais Matignon, the home and office of the prime minister.
President François Mitterrand (in power 1981-1995) was probably the last French head of state to make De Gaulle’s concept work, though some argue that it never did work very well. Jacques Chirac (1995-2012), Raffarin’s boss, took a detached view of daily politics, but still became unpopular — until he died last year at which point France discovered that it had always loved him deeply. Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-12) tried, in effect, to be his own prime minister. Ditto François Hollande (2012-16). Both were one-term presidents.
Emmanuel Macron (2016- ), by declaring himself “Jupiter,” tried to revive something of the Gaullist presidential mystique — and immunity from 24-hour news. He has failed.
Consider two recent opinion polls, researched during France’s coronavirus lockdown, which ended on Tuesday. (Disparities between polls are common in France.) Ifop-Fiducial for Paris Match found on 2 June that President Emmanuel Macron’s approval rating was 40% (no change). Prime Minister Edouard Philippe’s was 53% (up 7 points). Odoxa for France Inter found, on 26 May, that Macron’s rating was 35% (down 7 points), while Philippe’s was 46% (no change).
There have been opinion polls showing prime ministers to be more popular than presidents in the past — but an 11 to 13 point gap is exceptional. Macron has received the blame for what has gone wrong in France’s response to the Covid crisis, even though France has got many things right. Philippe, who has been in day-to-day control and was personally responsible for at least one bad decision, has prospered in popular opinion. He is seen as a likeable man and a safe pair of hands.
Philippe’s new-found popularity comes at an awkward time for Macron. The President knows that the economic after-shock of the Covid crisis will undermine his hopes of re-election in two years’ time. He is tempted to do what Fifth Republic heads of state have often done — to relaunch his presidency by changing his prime minister. But how can Macron dump Philippe when the Prime Minister is the most popular member of the government team? If he does so, might Philippe — a transfer from the centre-Right who never joined Macron’s start-up centrist party — run against the President himself in 2022 and win?
The conundrum has been greeted with mischievous joy in recent days by opposition politicians from far Right to hard Left. They have taken to Philippe’s parliamentary speeches and televised press conferences as a way of teasing and embarrassing Macron.
A leading ally of Macron told me: “No decisions have yet been made yet but there will definitely be a Government reshuffle in early July.”
“Macron wants the remaining two years or so of his mandate to take a new direction….something less confrontational, more ecological, probably a little to the Left, something which takes account of the shocks of the Covid crisis.”
Whether Philippe is dumped or carries on is 50:50 at the moment, the Macron ally says. The Prime Minister is a fiscally conservative man of the centre-Right. He may not feel comfortable with the probable new direction of Macron II.
“In any case, Philippe is exhausted,” he said.
“There is no animosity between the two men, despite what you read. Philippe could agree with Macron to quit while he’s ahead. He would then have a good chance of becoming President himself one day….But whatever happens he won’t run against Macron in two years’ time. He’s much too loyal and honourable a man to do that.”
The decision is further complicated by the shortage of compelling candidates to replace Edouard Philippe. Logically, if Macron wants to steer to the Left or to turn green, he needs a prime minister with a leftish lean or a greenish tinge. But who?
The only half-way plausible name to emerge so far is Jean-Yves Le Drian, the foreign minister and former defence minister. Le Drian is a former history teacher and former mayor of Lorient in Brittany. He is Catholic and socialist, from a working-class background — a combination now rare on the French Left. He is competent but dry, a manager rather than an ideologue. He has no known green tendencies.
Le Drian is 72 years old. His promotion would install a rather odd couple at the head of the French government – a 42-year-old president-monarch and a 72-year-old prime-minister-chief-vizier.
Macron’s youth and political inexperience partly explain why he has never been able to imprint himself on the French collective mind as father of the nation. He has delivered on some of his promises and made several important economic reforms, but there is something in his character that annoys many French people. He has no traditional, grassroots power base and has failed to create one; and his reforms have angered the Left.
His main claims to deserve a second term — a sharp fall in unemployment; a boom in foreign and domestic investment — will be buried by the economic crisis which follows the health crisis (an anticipated 11% fall in France’s GDP this year). Hence the need for Macron, as he said in a televised speech to the nation on 13 April, to “re-invent” himself.
Macron’s relationship with Philippe has been placed under huge strain by three crises in the last 20 months (more than any other Fifth Republic President has faced). During the original Gilets Jaunes rebellion, of November 2018, Macron was the principal target of provincial working- and middle-class abuse. He felt himself to be isolated and exposed — but nonetheless chose to leave his Jupiterian Mount Olympus to make a successful tour of local town hall meetings. Philippe was little seen.
During the pensions reform crisis of October last year, Philippe was thrust onto the front line. Macron, although the reform was largely his idea, opted to hide. He disliked some of the tactical choices made by Philippe but had to go along with them. Relations between the two began to fray.
During the Covid crisis, Macron has appeared in various guises, or disguises — sometimes standing back, sometimes thrusting himself into the limelight. He made four TV addresses to the nation in the space of a month, from mid-March to mid-April, in which he variously “declared war” and then admitted mistakes and announced that the world would never be the same again.
Meanwhile Philippe made a series of very competent appearances at press conferences and on the TV news, painstakingly explaining the science and the logistics of the Covid crisis. Overall, France has coped better than most similar countries but, unlike Germany, failed to test widely and rapidly. The government initially misled the nation on the reasons for this failure. Philippe and his ministers made more mis-statements than Macron, but Philippe has attracted less of the blame.
Overall, allies of both men say their relationship has been healthier, and more equal, than between most Fifth Republic presidents and prime ministers. De Gaulle employed three prime ministers in 10 years; George Pompidou had two in five years; Valéry Giscard d’Estaing had two in seven years; Mitterrand seven in 14 years; Chirac 4 in 12 years; Hollande three in five years.
The only president to be “faithful” to a single prime minister was Sarkozy, who patronised and marginalised François Fillon. The two men came to detest one another and took mutual revenge during the centre-Right primaries in 2017 (allowing a young, centrist upstart to become president of the Republic).
Both Mitterrand (twice) and Chirac (once) were obliged to appoint prime ministers from opposition parties after losing parliamentary elections. These so-called “cohabitations” had the Wizard of Oz effect of revealing that the Fifth Republic constitution actually grants French presidents very few direct powers. Without a majority in the national assembly, they are even more powerless than a US president without a majority in House and Senate.
These three periods when Prime Ministers ruled alone contributed to the de-mystification of the Olympian presidency imagined by De Gaulle. So did Chirac’s selfish decision in 2002 to reduce the presidential term from seven years to five so he could run again, despite his age and failing health. Having presidential and parliamentary terms of the same length linked the presidency to the parliamentary system; it became less of the independent power base that De Gaulle had intended.
In any case, the mediascape and the political zeitgeist has changed utterly since January 1959, when De Gaulle gave up the prime minister’s job to become the first president of the Fifth Republic. It is no longer feasible for a president to be a back-seat driver on all but foreign and defence policy. The role of the prime minister has become unsustainable — a source of instability, of staff intrigue and jealousy, rather than a throwaway shield or detachable front-bumper.
And yet a return to a straightforward parliamentary democracy, with a French chancellor or dominant prime minister, is inconceivable. It would be against French instincts. It would also be against the spirit of the times.
The French presidential system, for good or ill, suits and reinforces the worldwide twenty-first century decline of political parties. It chimes with the global trend towards charismatic leaders who know how to play on the cynicism and credulity of public opinion.
Macron surfed that mood in his own way in 2017 but he was neither cynical, nor charismatic, nor anti-establishment enough to ride the wave for long. His great fear for the Corona-skewed 2022 election is not a treacherous run by Edouard Philippe, nor even a triumph by Marine Le Pen. He fears the emergence of a bewitching figure from outside the political system. Paradoxically, the double-headed French system of government — giving a would-be charismatic strongman a prime minister to do the dog-work — could make such a candidature more plausible.
That, after all, is more or less how Vladimir Putin translated De Gaulle’s blueprint for government into Russian.