Saying that the French are passionate people is an understatement. The French culture says it all. They often give their heart and soul in everything they do and they view their government with as much passion too. It’s like a couple madly in love but still adamant in encouraging (forcing) their partners to get rid of their annoying little quirks that drive them nuts.
Like the couple analogy, the French sees their government as an important aspect of their lives and cherish it despite the good and the bad. But the passion they have for their government isn’t just that of a silently observing constituent but more of an aggressive advocate whose patriotism can border to dissent anytime. Unfortunately, the parliament seldom intervenes to hopefully resolve some of these serious arguments between the people and the state.
The recent French presidential elections have captured the attention of the world’s media. Aside from last year’s US elections, few elections in recent memory have attracted so much attention, commentary and anticipation.
In France, the stakes were high. Marine Le Pen of the fascist National Front had, until recent months, been polling ahead of all other parties. The mainstream centre left party, the Socialist Party, had been polling abysmally and scored a catastrophic 6 percent in the first round.
The candidate of the traditional right, François Fillon, was embroiled in scandals and, along with his Socialist rival, Benoît Hamon, failed to make it to the second round, leaving the run-off to be contested by Le Pen and the centre right, neoliberal Emmanuel Macron.
The political landscape on which this historic and unprecedented election has taken place is vast, complex and shaped by decades of economic stagnation, high unemployment, a mainstream centre left that has consistently attacked and betrayed its working class base and the rise and mainstreaming of Islamophobia.
Despite winning the presidential election, protests greeted Macron short after his win as the French people’s way of warning him to stop attacking labor rights even further, which isn’t actually new considering how much the French workers love to protest over the past few decades. It seems as if that the controversial election did not succeed in demoralizing the French union movement after all.
Macron had another advantage: he put forth a seemingly reasonable program for curing France’s economic ills, which are critical: government spending at 57% of GDP, the highest in Europe; a retirement age of 62 and a 35-hour workweek; 3,500 pages of employment regulations; an unemployment rate of nearly 10% (double that for those under 25); a GDP growth rate barely over 1%; public debt at nearly 90% of GDP; an income tax rate topping out at 45%; nine million people living below the poverty line; and welfare spending at nearly 32% of GDP. Macron promises to tackle the job and growth-killing policies that have created these dismal numbers, but he’s unlikely to have a parliamentary coalition big enough to get such reforms through. Don’t forget, about a third of the French voters cast a “pox on both your houses” vote, either abstaining or casting a blank or spoiled “white ballot.” This suggests a fragile foundation for Macron’s future government.
And if he tries to follow through on his campaign promises, he will likely meet stiff resistance from critics of “neoliberalism,” the epithet in Europe for free-market capitalism. In March 2006, 2.7 million mostly young French people protested against a minor reform of employment law that would allow entry-level workers to be more easily let go. And that was when the president was Jacques Chirac, a socialist who decried “Anglo-Saxon ultraliberalism,” Euro-speak for laissez-faire capitalism. Ten years later, socialist prime minister Manuel Valls faced nationwide riots and protests, some broken up with tear gas, over other employment reforms, which he had to get passed by invoking special powers and bypassing parliament. President Macron and his “neoliberal” reforms are unlikely to be any more successful, given the strength of Mélanchon’s support, the disaffection with Macron of a third of French voters, and the French people’s enduring love for their short work-week and generous subsidies.
France’s young president has a huge obstacle to overcome in the form of massive unemployment and slow economic growth that has proven to be quite difficult to overcome for quite some time now. Moreover, he’ll likely face an ever-increasing national debt as France tries its best to provide the basic social benefits of its people. If he can’t do anything about these issues, the French would likely take to the streets once more to air their grievances in protest because it has worked for them in the past. We just don’t know, though, whether it will still be an effective tactic because its effects seem to have weakened over the past few years.