Rising in the polls, the French election’s dark horse Jean-Luc Mélenchon has promised a reboot of the French Republic, vowing to overhaul a presidential regime that he blames for mounting abstention, disillusion and increasingly violent protests.
Sporting a prominent French moustache and the Phrygian cap of the revolutionary Sans-culottes, Johan Pain cut a familiar figure on place de la République in Paris – the French capital’s traditional protest hub
The sprawling square, best known for its towering allegorical statue of the French Republic (coiffed, of course, with a Phrygian cap), has long been a rite of passage for every left-wing march in town. On Sunday, it was the stage for the biggest rally of France’s presidential campaign, in support of veteran campaigner Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who is polling in third with just three weeks to go before the April 10 vote.
Basking in the warm sunshine, tens of thousands of flag-waving supporters flocked to hear Mélenchon promise a reboot of the Republic. Few had travelled as far as Pain, who made the 500-kilometre trip from Lausanne in Switzerland to back the leftist firebrand.
“The Fifth Republic has failed us, it’s a broken system,” Pain, 72, said of the presidential regime instituted by General Charles de Gaulle, France’s wartime hero, more than 60 years ago. “I’ve realised this much from living abroad: when it comes to democracy in Europe, we’re bottom of the league.”
Sunday’s “March for the Sixth Republic” marked the third such rally since Mélenchon first ran for the presidency a decade ago. It was a chance for the hard-left candidate to flex his muscles as he continues his slow but steady rise in the polls, five years after he narrowly missed out on a place in the all-important presidential run-off.
The promise of a new Republic allowed Mélenchon to reach beyond his core support, drawing people for whom an overhaul of France’s constitution is the priority. Among them was 32-year-old dance teacher Hélène Lallemand, who quipped that she showed up “despite Mélenchon, rather than because of him”.
Though no fan of the firebrand leftist, Lallemand praised his idea of convening a constituent assembly to draw up a new constitution – “by and for the people” – and giving voters the power to revoke their representatives. She said such moves were urgently needed to offset “the mounting voter apathy and disillusion that are sapping French democracy”.
“It is up to the people to write their constitution, not a cabinet of experts,” Mélenchon roared moments later as he addressed the crowd, promising to “breathe new life into a country that is dying a slow death through abstention.”
The permanent coup d’état
Apathy and disillusion have translated into a steady decline in participation at French elections – leading up to the dismal 35% turnout registered at regional polls last year, in which the pandemic also played a part. As France’s marquee election, the presidential contest has traditionally enjoyed stronger participation, hovering at around 80%. But pollsters are warning that a surge in abstention threatens to undermine next month’s process.
Last week, a study commissioned by French daily Le Monde found that fewer than 70% of French voters were certain they would take part in the first round on April 10. The number dropped to 53% for the 18-24 age group.
“France is the only country in the European Union that is witnessing a steady decline in turnout in all elections, from local to presidential,” said Paul Alliès, a professor of political science at the University of Montpellier, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “When it comes to abstention, we’re number one!”
A long-time advocate of a Sixth Republic, Alliès said rising abstention and increasingly violent protests are a consequence of a dysfunctional system that invests too much power and attention on the figure of the president. The corollary of this lop-sided system, he added, is “a parliament that is totally impotent”.
“This cult of the leader, our habit of framing elections as the ‘meeting between a man (sic) and a people’, it’s all nonsense,” he said. “We have the worst regime in all of Europe, and it’s fuelling violence and resentment.”
Critics of the presidential role fashioned by De Gaulle have long complained that it carries traits of Napoleon’s imperial synthesis, combining elements of France’s monarchical and revolutionary traditions. The criticism is as old as the system itself, its central tenet summed up in François Mitterrand’s 1964 pamphlet “The Permanent Coup d’Etat”.
Mitterrand accused De Gaulle of betraying the spirit of the constitution by sidelining parliament and swapping the role of arbiter for that of omnipotent ruler. “By replacing the national representation with the notion of the leader’s infallibility, General De Gaulle concentrates the nation’s interest, curiosity and passions on himself and depoliticises the rest,” wrote the future Socialist president, who would later play by the same rulebook.
Similar accusations have been levelled at De Gaulle’s successors, including Mitterand: presidents ruling from their ivory tower, answerable to nobody; parliaments stripped of powers and initiative, reduced to rubber-stamping the Elysée Palace’s directives; prime ministers appointed and dismissed at the president’s whim, and promptly scapegoated when things go wrong.
In a 2014 study calling for political reform in France, the Peterson Institute for International Economics said “the era of regularly electing a new king and regularly tossing him out again should be over in France.”
“France must change its system, preferably reducing the status of its presidency to the largely ceremonial level seen in other European republics,” the think-tank wrote. “At the least, it should (..) remov(e) the president's right to name the prime minister, call new elections, and serve as commander-in-chief.”
Designed to legitimise those sweeping powers by ensuring the president wins at least 50% of the popular vote, France’s two-round electoral system increasingly has the opposite effect, the study added. It noted that tactical voting aimed at keeping the far right out of power means the winner “command(s) a negative political mandate of ‘not being Marine Le Pen’, a leader without a popular mandate to lead or enact the change France needs.”
Five years of self-styled "Jupiterian" rule under President Emmanuel Macron have only exacerbated the problems long flagged by critics of the Fifth Republic, said Alliès, pointing to the incumbent’s habit of relying on the secrecy of special “defence councils” to steer the country through the Covid-19 pandemic, terrorist threats and now the war in Ukraine.
It’s a theme the Mélenchon campaign has been pushing as it promises an overhaul of France’s republican regime.
“Over the past five years, Emmanuel Macron has aggravated every aspect of the solitary power fostered by the Fifth Republic,” says the leftist candidate’s online platform. “His predecessors were presidential monarchs; he has become an absolutist presidential monarch.”
Mélenchon’s proposals for a Sixth Republic include introducing proportional representation to make parliament more representative; giving citizens the power to initiate legislation and referendums, and to revoke their representatives; and scrapping special powers that currently give France’s executive right to pass legislation without parliamentary approval.
But those are just proposals. The candidate for La France insoumise (France Unbowed) says it will be up to the people to decide on their next constitution. Never one to miss a revolutionary reference, he has promised to convene a constituent assembly whose members will be either elected or drawn by lots. Their draft constitution will then be submitted to the people via referendum.
The veteran leftist is hardly the first presidential candidate to call for a Sixth Republic. In past elections, it was not uncommon for a majority of candidates – not all of them left-wingers – to back the idea of sweeping constitutional reform. Their proposals often differed, some advocating a parliamentary regime with a strong prime minister while others called for scrapping the PM’s job altogether.
“Traditionally, only two parties have always supported the Fifth Republic – the mainstream centre-left and mainstream centre-right,” said Alliès. “It’s easy to see why: they’re the ones who enjoyed the regime’s sweeping powers.”
Therein lies the main difficulty for advocates of regime change, Alliès added: “Essentially, you need a candidate who is willing to take the huge powers of the Fifth Republic and give them back to the people.”
‘Don’t disappoint me, Jean-Luc’
Since the Revolution of 1789, France has had no shortage of regime changes, but all of them have coincided with times of great turmoil – whether revolutions, wars or coup d’états. The Fifth Republic may be experiencing difficulties, but it is not yet in terminal crisis. It has also proven to be relatively malleable, allowing for 24 constitutional revisions since its inception.
During Macron’s term, the presidential regime weathered one crisis with game-changing potential: the Yellow Vest insurgency, one of the most potent and contagious protest movements in recent French history. It was eventually smothered through a combination of tax breaks, police crackdowns and a "Great National Debate", which France’s ubiquitous president soon turned into a town-hall road-show offering him unrivalled media coverage.
The high-visibility jackets were easily spotted at Sunday’s rally in Paris, where the Yellow Vests’ flagship demand for a “citizens’ initiative referendum” – which Mélenchon has included among his proposals for a Sixth Republic – featured prominently on placards and banners.
“The people have been stripped of all power and so have our representatives in parliament,” said primary school teacher Christine Arlandis, who described herself as a Yellow Vest at heart, even though she did not wear a gilet jaune.
“I’m voting for Mélenchon so that he gets rid of the Fifth Republic,” she added, blaming the current regime for “dismantling France’s social model and devitalising its democracy.”
In 1988, an 18-year-old Arlandis cast her very first presidential vote for Mitterrand, who would famously make the most of the very presidential powers he had previously decried. More than three decades later, she is not certain she can trust Mélenchon to surrender those powers should he clinch the presidency.
“I was wrong to trust Mitterrand back then, but I’m willing to risk it again because this is our last chance to revive democracy,” she said, holding up a sign with the words, “Don’t disappoint me, Jean-Luc”.
She added: “If we fail, then that’s it. I won’t vote again.”