Opinions - 09.04.2014 - 00:00 

Democratic deficit in France

The French electorate taught their government a lesson it is unlikely to forget. Vincent Kaufmann about the country’s current condition and the "protest elections" as a valve for discontent.<br/>


9 April 2014. The result of the communal elections of late March is cataclysmic for President François Hollande, his socialist government and the concomitant parliamentary majority. The left has lost a total of 160 of the 509 towns with more than 10,000 inhabitants that it succeeded in winning in 2008. The right has won 139 towns, and Marine Le Pen’s Front National prevailed in 11 towns – which would be insignificant as such if it were not yet another signal of the Front National’s new ability to summon majorities.

What with poor economic figures and a record rate of unemployment (just over 10 per cent), this election result comes as anything but a surprise. According to opinion polls, the socialist government is one of the most unpopular that has ever existed in France. The reasons are obvious: French competitiveness is ailing, and the country’s economy is unable to gather momentum. The government systematically relies on tax increases to get the national deficit under control, but so far without success.

A shot across the government’s bow

No wonder, then, that the electorate fired yet another shot across the bows of their government. It would appear that François Hollande got the message double quick this time: as early as Monday, 23 March 2014, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault was replaced by Manuel Valls, who is reputed to be, and sometimes reproached by his own party comrades for being, a representative of the right-wing, social-democrat wing of the Socialist Party, i.e. a kind of French Tony Blair.

If Manuel Valls will have sufficient elbow room to implement long overdue fundamental reforms (particularly reducing taxation on work and scaling down Europe’s most extensive and expensive administration) is a moot question, particularly since his new cabinet also contains icons of the party’s left wing like Arnaud Montebourg, who is especially popular in Switzerland, and Justice Minister Christiane Taubira.

But then, it is not really a surprise, either, since it was always thus. In 2008, Sarkozy and his centre-right party, UMP, were taught a similar lesson and lost their majority at the communal level. Something like this can also happen at European elections, and thus the next shot across Hollande’s bows will be due in a few weeks’ time. Whether local authorities or members of the European Parliament are elected or – like in 2005 – the ballot is about the European constitution: French people appear to use election days as basically good opportunities to say non to their government once again.

Elections as a valve

This "protest election behaviour" can be regarded as a consequence of the strongly centralised political system, which offers citizens very few opportunities for direct participation. And when it comes to delicate decisions, even the legislative power only has the choice between unconditional support of the government or self-dissolution – this thanks to the famous Art. 49.3 of the French Constitution.

And if there are no elections or referendums as valves for discontent for a few years? Well, then there still are all sorts of strikes. Or unsold tomatoes, which are regularly deployed to decorate the préfectures. And if neither tomatoes nor manure are available, there is still the option of setting a few cars on fire: French cars seem to be particularly well suited for bonfires. What can primarily be observed behind the deficits of all kinds that characterise the French economy is also a democratic deficit.

Picture: Photocase / hunfi

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