X Close

The poison in France’s veins Political apathy is draining the Republic of life

The French have ceased to care. Philippe Lopez/AFP


April 19, 2022   5 mins

France does not feel like it is entering a season of political turbulence. It barely feels like it is going through an important election. Away from the headlines — the disintegration of the old centre parties, the renaissance of Jean-Luc MĂ©lenchon, the limp performance of Éric Zemmour — there is a widespread sense of apathy.

That was the atmosphere on the streets of Paris on the night of the first round. The TrocadĂ©ro, overlooking the Eiffel Tower, was occupied not by enthusiastic political activists but by tired partygoers who left the building littered with broken glass. The only detritus of the election were a huge “Zemmort 2022” tag (a contraction of Zemmour and the French word for death) and the occasional trampled campaign flier.

Even the presence of Le Pen in the run-off for a second time did not worry the locals, a stark contrast with 2002, when Marine’s father, Jean-Marie, made the second round and jolted the French youth into organising mass demonstrations against the threat of a far-Right presidency. This is the real story of the 2022 election so far. We are witnessing a phantom campaign.

Another striking example of the exceptional disinterest in this year’s campaign: TF1, France’s oldest and most popular TV channel, decided to broadcast the hilarious medieval time-travel movie Les Visiteurs at 10 pm, only two hours after the announcement of the official results. It was the earliest that the channel had ever cut away from its election debrief.

The impression of apathy is backed empirically. Of registered citizens, 26% abstained, the highest number since 2002. 68% found the election “uninteresting”, according to the pollster Ipsos. A month before the first round, “tiredness” was the strongest emotion associated with the election.

Away from the verbal provocations of Zemmour, the electoral platforms this year were uniformly bland. Even the relatively lacklustre 2017 campaign entertained radical ideas like universal income, enormous public-sector spending cuts, and a potential French exit from the EU. Large-scale rallies, normally essential rites of passage for presidential candidates, were virtually absent from the last few weeks.

The election also suffered dearly from the absence of its main candidate, President Macron. The incumbent announced his campaign a mere four weeks before the vote and held one major rally before the run-off. He declined to show up for any of the debates with the other candidates, largely because he did not want to be reduced to their level at a time when the war in Ukraine imbued him with international stature. His platform was purposefully modest. It focused on Macron’s strongest attribute: his experience.

This lack of public interest in the election — and with it, the lack of any serious debate about the country’s future — will weigh heavily on the French Republic’s health. More than in any other European country, the French President commands immense executive power. He can fire his Prime Minister at will and call early parliamentary elections with virtually no restrictions. And unlike his American counterpart, he cannot be impeached.

The French psyche is perhaps even more important than France’s institutional landscape. For all the mythology around France decapitating her king, the French have never broken completely from their long monarchic past. De Gaulle, when he founded the Fifth Republic, made it explicitly clear that he was building a “synthesis” between France’s monarchic and republican traditions — one that would give the president considerable power.

Macron has often used the symbolism of the monarchy for political purposes. In 2017, weeks after his election, he hosted Vladimir Putin at the Palace of Versailles, and twice during his term he used his constitutional right to give a speech in Versailles to the Congress in an apparent attempt to develop a French version of the United States’ ‘State of the Union’ address. Before he became President, he said of French politics that “we are missing a king”.

The French presidential election has replaced the coronation ceremony as the symbolic centre of French politics. This means, however, that the prĂ©sidentielles must be a moment of democratic catharsis. Here is the occasion for France’s electorate to wrestle with all of its frustrations and desires. Debate and political conflict reach new heights, families and friends weigh on the various campaign pledges, and tempers sometimes get out of hand. All topics must be on the table because once the presidential ship has sailed, the opposition parties have few institutional means to steer public policy.

None of that is happening in 2022. And the lack of this ritual catharsis will have profound ripple effects. The next president will lack a strong mandate to implement his (or her) vision. Macron announced mezza voce that he would increase the legal retirement age from 62 to 65, but he has done little legwork in his campaign to get the French on board with this policy. Given France’s long tradition of strikes and Macron’s incapacity to pass a milder pension reform in his first term, this reform could well be political dynamite.

The 2017 campaign was also underwhelming, albeit to a lesser extent. In its late stages, it was largely highjacked by the centre-Right candidate François Fillon’s financial scandals, which sidelined substantive debate over other issues. Strikingly, in a country that had been recently rocked by a series of high-profile jihadist attacks, the issues of political Islam and what would later be coined “separatism” were largely secondary, as was the question of climate change.

As a result, France wound up electing a president, Macron, that it did not really know. This came back to haunt Macron, who soon discovered that he lacked a mandate for much of his governing agenda. On questions of Islam and identity, for instance, Macron ran a campaign in 2017 that embraced the traditional multiculturalism of the centre-Left. He praised German Chancellor Angela Merkel for welcoming over one million refugees in 2015 and provoked many conservatives by stating that there was “no such thing as French culture, there is a culture in France and it is diverse”. In the aftermath of Brexit and Trump, he was heralded by the liberal international media as the new internationalist champion to slay populist dragons.

This very New Labour stance on identity did not hold. In a blend of tactical triangulation and real concern about France’s unity, Macron, once in office, steered sharply to the Right on immigration and identity. He gave a 12-page interview to the staunchly Right-wing magazine Valeurs Actuelles in which he echoed many of its concerns on immigration, and his minister of the interior, GĂ©rald Darmanin, a former Nicolas Sarkozy ally, even called Le Pen “soft” when she argued that jihadism had nothing to do with Islam. Many of his Left-wing supporters in Parliament abandoned him in response to this about-face.

But it was the issue of environmentalism that led to Macron’s first real setback in November 2018. Increasingly resentful rural French, who felt condescended to by a president who was accumulating a series of insensitive gaffes (including telling someone to “cross the road to find a job”), finally revolted when Macron went along with a scheduled green tax on diesel. Thousands of Gilets Jaunes rose up across the country, occupied roundabouts, and headed to Paris to manifest their profound discontent.

Macron undeniably paid for 40 years of governmental disinterest for what Christophe Guilluy has called “peripheral France”, but he also suffered from the lack of cathartic debate over his policies, including his green pledges. Although the French state was eventually able to repress the riots and protests, the Gilets Jaunes represented an outburst of revolutionary anger against the system. Denied a proper debate over the direction of their country, many ordinary people felt that taking to the streets was their only option.

So while over the next few days all eyes will be on the genuine, albeit still somewhat hypothetical, risks of a Le Pen presidency, the real poison for French democracy might already be in its veins. In 2017, the pollster Brice Teinturier published the prophetic “Plus Rien à faire, Plus rien à foutre” (don’t care, don’t give a damn), in which he demonstrated that 40% of French citizens were disappointed with French politics, 13% angry, 20% disgusted, 9% indifferent. Only 18% expressed positive emotions. Teinturier even hinted that anger might be preferable to apathy, because angry citizens still want to believe in a cause. Apathetic citizens have given up.

Assuming that Macron is indeed re-elected, France’s monarchical republic will give him all of the power he needs to muscle his agenda through the country’s institutions. But, after the experience of his first term, we should all be concerned that the French Republic will pay dearly for this year’s phantom campaign.


François Valentin is co-host of the Uncommon Decency podcast and a Senior Researcher at Onward’s Social Fabric Programme.

Valen10Francois

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

24 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Jem Barnett
Jem Barnett
2 years ago

This apathy is the intended effect of decades of centralisation of power, removing meaningful democratic control from the hands of citizens and funnelling it upwards to bureaucrats to insulate the ‘direction of travel’ from public feedback/intervention.

This isn’t just a problem in France, it’s a major issue all across the west. The voters do indeed grasp that no matter how they vote they will be served the Davos agenda, even if they cannot articulate that elegantly. The power structures have grown to be massive, opaque, even oppressive. Most of all they are unresponsive.

Why vote, when it makes no difference? …when no meaningful change will take place based on the vote?

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
2 years ago
Reply to  Jem Barnett

The only way Marine Le Pen was able to make the runoff was stripping off her most anti-EU, anti-immigrant positions and sentiments. Are French citizens really tired of rule by remote, unaccountable elites? The 2017 result and resulting change in Le Pen implies not.

Regardless, Sunday will be fascinating to watch, especially for those of us in America who don’t have to live with the consequences. Should Le Pen actually win (I know, highly unlikely, but so was Donald Trump) the man who will celebrate the most will be Victor Orban. He’s been praying for a fellow, right-wing government in a major EU state for a while.

Bennie History
Bennie History
2 years ago

I like to call the current political landscape that people in Western societies live in the “Brutalist Democracy” structure.
Just like brutalist architecture which is designed to make the average individual feel small – Western democracies have increasingly become unresponsive, unchanging, and feel increasingly distant to the average voter.
Democracy has shifted from the will of the voters to the interests of life-long bureaucrats, media conglomerates, big tech bigwigs, and elitists from gated communities who continually wage this war of information to make voters from these countries feel divided from one another.
Brutalist architecture often makes buildings feel larger than they are through their use of building materials as the visual focus. No wonder voters are becoming disinterested in participating in a system they feel is beyond their control.
If any change comes to the system it will have to come from outside of it. The dismantling of institutions that were once revered, but have now become stagnant blights, is the only solution to a broken system. Every voter knows there is a problem, but no one knows how to fix it.
In the end the honest truth is that they don’t want us to know how to fix it in the first place.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
2 years ago
Reply to  Bennie History

We actually live under an oxymoron: “liberal democracy”. The idea that these two coexist is absurd.

If you are a committed liberal (seek to liberate people from constraints), then you must support undemocratic means, since voters may want to do illiberal things. Think Hungary’s children’s LGBT law, or slavery in the United States — both illiberal but broadly supported by their citizens.

If you are a committed democrat (the will of the people must prevail), you must accept some illiberal outcomes.

We are living through the end of 60 year reign of the “liberals” over the “democrats” in this unstable, shotgun wedding that we call “liberal democracy”. The rise of the so-called “populists” (like Le Pen) is simply the “democrats” of that equation biting back.

Michael K
Michael K
2 years ago

Even weirder, with all the COVID restrictions, it could be argued that the supposedly liberal actors have turned intensely illiberal and undemocratic.

RD Richards
RD Richards
2 years ago
Reply to  Bennie History

Smart insight Bennie — thanks.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 years ago

I was going to vote for The Indecisive Party, but just wasn’t sure… so I looked at the apathy party… but could not be bothered…

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
2 years ago

Whichever candidate wins – and it’s most probably Macron – let’s hope the electorate presents them with a powerful, united national assembly capable of withstanding the agenda.

Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

Dream on

here the parliamentary election is called “ the 3 rd round “ 

or day of reckoning for people like Melanchon or the defeated socialists and republicans.
As to Le Pen, do not forget her party has only

2 seats in parliament and supposing she wins, the shock will so immense that I really doubt she would get the majority in parliament.
Chirac is the one who torpedoed the pretty wise system we had. 7 years term for the president, long enough to implement his program and a 5 years term for parliament to confirm him or shut him up.Very similar to the US mid term election.
We need to go back to this with a one term only 7 years for the president.
Maybe the US can live with such a short term for president, France, as volatile and fickle as it is, clearly needs more time
..but one term only.

Last edited 2 years ago by Bruno Lucy
Peter Francis
Peter Francis
2 years ago

Many thanks to François Valentin for this piece. French politics seem more interesting than UK politics, largely due to France’s talented political commentators. I have one quibble. You state that “More than in any other European country, the French President commands immense executive power.”. Yet later you say that Macron “soon discovered that he lacked a mandate for much of his governing agenda.” Doesn’t the extent of the French president’s power hinge on the outcome of the AssemblĂ©e nationale elections in June? And also, of course, on level of resentment that the president’s policies engender in the gilets jaunes.

Last edited 2 years ago by Peter Francis
François Valentin
François Valentin
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter Francis

Never responded to this, but a lot of very smart comments!
I think you need to distinguish the institutional/constitutional power of the President, with his political capital (which is much more fickle).
You were very right about the parliament, but I actually think parliament or not, we would still be in a similar situation.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

Vive la Guillotine!

Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

What a s
..d statement. 1,2 millions lost their heads then. Some for political stand, other being denounced by jealous neighbours over things that had nothing to do with politic. The same happened during nazis occupation in the 1940®s bringing back this French national sport of being jealous and rating on neighbours.
France will always be a very divided country. It was rich against poor, collaborationists against resistant, France of the past ( whatever it was ) against Europe

I was reading Marine Le Pen editorial in Le Figaro this morning and it was just a fairytale promising me the country of my grandparents
..or what I remember of it, that is the best part of being a kid.
Tomorrow, Emmanuel Macron will have his say and no doubt it will be the same fairytale like editorial.
One thing I know however and the recent events in Malmö ( of course not reported by French media, I had to read it in the German press ) should be a wake up call as to the danger Le Pen election will bring, if Le Pen gets elected, we can expect the same kind of unrests. Make no mistake, I have no fuzzy feelings toward religion, even less when it comes to Islam who is the key to having France live in ( relative ) peace. As long as Islam followers won’t adhere to the laĂŻc ideals of the French Republic and keep their faith to the limits of their private homes, this country will never be able to live in peace.
Neither Macron or Le Pen will be able to resolve this, despite their very different stand on this pretty explosive issue. It is up to French Islam followers to decide if they want to give the law of the republic precedence over Islam and keep the latter within the limits of their homes.
Back in the early days of Iceland, the then, very wise ruler decided to make Catholicism the official religion, adding “ whatever you do at home is your business “

Last edited 2 years ago by Bruno Lucy
Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
2 years ago
Reply to  Bruno Lucy

it is up to French Islam followers to decide if they want to give the law of the republic precedence over Islam”

Why would they ever do that if, as you say, there is no candidate who will attempt to force them to do so? Why would following the law of France be optional for Muslims in a way it is not for everyone else?

I think the French misunderstand Islam especially and religion in general. Muslims have no philosophical tradition of “separation of mosque and state”, so French secularism makes no sense to them. Religion can’t be “confined to your home”. If you are serious about your god (whoever it is), your religion is the founding architecture of your entire life. The idea that the core of your being must be left at home lest you offend anyone may be France’s goal, but it results in a citizenry of public half-zombies. (Maybe the alternative is worse, but that seems pretty bad.)

Perhaps that’s why the French aren’t bothering to vote; their philosophical cores aren’t allowed into the voting booth — they’re stuck at home.

David McDowell
David McDowell
2 years ago

Spot on

Jeanie K
Jeanie K
2 years ago
Reply to  Bruno Lucy

The country (France) and her People were far nicer in the time of your Grandparents (I’m assuming you are in late middle age)

Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Pathetic statement

Mike Michaels
Mike Michaels
2 years ago
Reply to  Bruno Lucy

I’m not sure AA meant it as anything other than a joke.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Mike Michaels

Thanks!

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Bruno Lucy

Don’t “get your knickers in a twist” Bruno, or have you had a sense of humour bypass?

Last edited 2 years ago by ARNAUD ALMARIC
David McDowell
David McDowell
2 years ago

Ha ha ha

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
2 years ago

Je vous remarcie pour votre rapport. Nous verrons ce qui se passe aujourd’hui.

Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
2 years ago

Equally pathetic

Jeanie K
Jeanie K
2 years ago
Reply to  Bruno Lucy

what are you describing?