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French politics

Does France have a problem with its president or its presidency?

French president Emmanuel Macron faces criticism, but how much is personal, and how much is it a problem with the institution of the French presidency?
French president Emmanuel Macron faces criticism, but how much is personal, and how much is it a problem with the institution of the French presidency? Chistophe Simon/AFP

French President Emmanuel Macron is set to unveil proposals on Thursday evening to address the issues raised by Yellow Vest protestswhich have lasted five months. He will have to address protestors’ calls for more representation in government. One analyst sees this as a necessary move forward for France.


Macron will give a speech laying out proposals based on the results of the Great National Debate launched in December, after the first weeks of the Yellow Vest protests. The government said it wanted to get French people's input on the issues being raised by the protestors, they set up online surveys, and organised hundreds of local meetings around the country.

Vincent Martigny, a political scientist who focuses on democracy in France, sees the question of participation as key to addressing longstanding issues in France.

Vicent Martigny on the French presidency, and the need to rethink democratic representation

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity)

Q: With the Yellow Vest protestors taking to the streets and raising issues of taxes, income inequality and democratic representation, and the government providing a Great National Debate as a forum, where are people finding ways to express themselves politically in France today?

What is clear is that France - like many European democracies, and also north America - is in a crisis of representative democracy. Many people want to have a say. But there seems to be a confusion between participating in a debate and participating in power. What the Great Debate does not resolve is the demand people have for participation and sharing power.

Q: The protestors have raised the idea of a Citizen Referendum, called the RIC, which would allow people to propose laws. Could that work in France?

Germany has a kind of system like that at local and regional levels, and some German lander even allow people to question the legitimacy of elected members of local parliaments, by dismissing them by referendum.

We don’t have that in France, because it’s not in our political tradition. So at issue is the possibility of integrating new forms of democracy that will allow a larger part of the population to participate. And I think Macron is probably going to propose that.

Q: You’ve written a book, The Return of the Prince, about the rise of strong-man presidencies in Western democracies. How is this the case in France?

At the end of the 19th century, France had a strong parliament, and a suspicion towards strong leaders, because strong leaders, often in history, meant dictators and emperors and kings.

France has had a very ambivalent relationship with the prince, which is why Macron is very criticsed right now. The way he talks about ‘my country’ and ‘my people’ raises suspicions of his conception of democracy.

Q: Is this an issue with him as a person, or the institution of the French presidency under the Fifth Republic?

It’s both. The constitution of the Fifth Republic gives a lot of power to the president - power that is probably without any comparison in any democracy, because counter-powers are very weak in France.

The problem is with the presidency and its powers, but also with Macron himself, who is the incarnation of the situation and of the problem of the Fifth Republic, even though he didn’t invent it. We are in a new cycle of democracy in which the power of the president has never been so strong, but at the same time his legitimacy has never been so fragile.

Q: France has so many layers of representation, from the president, prime minister and parliament, through regional governments, departments and thousands of mayors and local councils. Can’t people find representation somewhere?

When you ask people who they trust, they trust their mayors. And then they trust their MPs, or the heads of regional councils, which is local government. And then, much less, they trust the prime minister and the president.

But if you take a look at electoral turnout, you can see it is very high in France for the presidential election. About 80 percent of the population takes part in the vote every five years, so it makes it one of the most legitimate elections.

Many people participate because they understand that this man has a lot of power, so they want to have a say about it. Does it mean they agree with the fact that this man has so much power? That’s another question.

Q: What do you see as the solution? Is this an argument for a new French republic, as some have called for?

I think the institutional problem is key. As long as you have a presidential election giving so much power to one man, it seems to me quite immature as a democratic move.

Clearly we need a change in French democracy. I’m not saying we should give away classical democracy. I think we should mix it with more participative democracy.

In the long term, I am hopeful when I see that there are new social movements that are happening regularly in France. Some are violent, and that is not good. But I am hopeful when I see young people march every Friday for climate. They start to believe in political terms that are collective and not as individuals.

The fact that a society like France, which is polarised, has more and more people, especially young people, raising this question – for me it’s a sign of hope, for sure.

This interview was produced as part of the Spotlight on France podcast.

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